Categories
Voices

To Come and Become

by Lily Cat Woodbury | Voices | Fall 2018

Image by Amanda Poorvu

Fear, violence, and destruction are pieces of our heteropatriarchal society as normal as eating, sleeping, drinking, and fucking. Pleasure can be reclaimed. Controlling fear forces it to subside.

Embodying a submissive and dominant relationship is an inventive process. Re-framing power forces it to transmute out of socially constructed violent dynamics which often surround sex.

***

Lights up, I turn on the salt and lava lamp and my bedroom glows pink. I control the lights like I control my cum slut. My pretty sub has begged me to construct marks of love all over their body. I like to call my sub my “little bitch.” I like to call my sub “baby.” I like to call my sub “my lover.” I like to call my sub “QT.” I like to call my sub my “cum slut.” My little bitch and I are cultivating deep understanding of the importance of sexual communication, and our sexuality in our relationship, based on submission and dominance. We have created these names to initiate a relationship we can define for ourselves; outside of the binaries forced upon hetero-cis-normative couples. We occupy a place of in between that can be infinitely constructed around us, by us, for us.

***

My sub likes to follow the rules, which we establish together. My sub calls me their bitch. My sub calls me their lover. My sub calls me sexyboy. Our relationship uses power play, constructed by reciprocal respect, and performed through mutual agreement that I am in control, and they will follow my instructions. I determine where I want to be touched, they respect my rules and start with one fi nger. My lover pleads for more which I tenderly allow, for our dichotomous amusement. Our play allows me to be dominant, and my partner submissive; roles that are equally important and dependent on each other. Subs and doms are active in constructing new and personalized systems of power. Powerplay can act to create new and personalized forms of pleasure. BDSM is carved into three forms: BD for bondage and discipline, DS for dominance and submission, and SM for sadism and Masochism. I understand the more general term of kink as the personalization and meshing together of these three components of BDSM. My relationship, while finitely in the realm of dominance and submission, occupies a space in kink between all of these forms.

Sadomasochism and dominance can fog the horizon line between violence and the erotic. The Leather Archives in Chicago flaunt the landscape of kink. The archive’s exhibits demonstrate the nuances in the ocean of arousal, as well as the rigid islands of exclusion within kink. The valleys are beautified from voices such as the lesbian sex mafia, a leather group comprised of non-cis males in the leather community, who have traditionally been left out. The mountains include photographs and interviews with the powerfully inspiring Mrs Muir, a professional dominatrix in New York City. Mrs. Muir describes how she prioritizes comfort while choosing attire to allow her transformation into a multitude of powerful characters. In her interview, she emphasizes her unchanging dominant persona and proclaims “In my dungeon, I am the law.” This landscape, The Leather Archives, echoes the voice in my head saying “Pleasure can be reclaimed.” Fear of BDSM from outsiders shrouds it in dark images of immorality, extremity, and bruises. Contrary to ideas from the heteropatriarchy, my kink is not destructive––morally or otherwise. The loudest voices stigmatize the gay roots of BDSM and isolate kink culture completely. Isn’t it ironic how they fear their own destruction? The patriarchy penetrates and governmental regulations work to create taboo surrounding bodies that aren’t masculine or don’t exhibit naturalized masculinity. Sex toys are objects used for physical pleasure. I call my lover my toy. Many sex toys are designed to emulate human genitalia yet I have come from the pure sensation of a tongue in my ear. Kink culture has been a long work to subvert the notion of sexy. Everyday objects that provide physical arousal and/or sexual bliss are named pervertables in The Leather Archives. Possibilities for sex are reimagined in a divergent context. Through the act of perversion, power is reclaimed. Sensory investigations of inviting objects can render anything sexy. Bliss is in the senses; here I find clear space of possibility for non-binary people in BDSM. Pleasure can be an idea. I fuck my lover’s ribs while biting their earrings. I am titillated by the sound of my teeth on metal.

***

As a dom, I am self-indulgent, both experiencing power and confronting pain. Pleasure is to be reclaimed. Dominants and submissives both seek release from larger systems of control, thrust upon those socialized under the constructs of power. In the 1994 book Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex, trans writer Pat Califia voices, “Sex discrimination and hate crimes against women don’t come from the leather community… They occur within contexts like industrial capitalism and marriage.” Through BDSM, I have learned how to encode power for my own gratification.

I have found love through de-contextualizing pleasure from power, I understand pleasure not as the relief from existential, societal, or repressed pain from sexual discrimination. As a dom, I have begun to accept the culturally complex substance of power in life. Outside of my relationship, I refuse to accept constructs which many people take for granted: Califa voices this by saying, “As if they had always existed, like gravity or continental drift.” Powerplay allows me to reclaim pleasure within my own terms. As a result, I consider the rigid and reeling systems of power in my life (gender, money, race) more actively. Systems under which queers have been forced to writhe––without saying yes.

***

Judith Butler asks the alluring question, “What kind of gender performance will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire?” How peculiar, that creating our own binaries releases us from others.

I swim in murky pools of gender––who can I trust to know right from wrong? How am I expected to float with weights tied to my ankles? In what ways can my love ease the brash current of sexuality for those who swim alongside me? Where can I find a definition for queer?

Can my body perform dominance when the only listed synonyms for feminine are “ladylike,” “womanly,” “dainty,” “soft,” ”girlish,” ”tender,” ”female,” ”womanish,” and “effeminate”? We can come and we can become. Dominance and submission allow for a discursive, sexual and physical positioning of ourselves, in regards to gender. Pieces of our dynamic being, which are sexual and symbolic, act to psychologically stabilize gender within my relationship. My partner and I are both genderqueer, and by playing with dominance and submission we actively queer our queer experience.

Communication and care guide and empower us to love within roles we create. The reciprocity is apparent. My subby brat wants to be told what to do. We are attached to each other like muscle on bone: a mutually intertwined structure and support system. BDSM relationships occupy the in-betweens of complex paradoxes: pain and pleasure, safety and fear, desire and control.

***

For me, I embrace a compassionate authoritarianism over my sub; I tell them the rules. They are always helping me and in return, I teach them, reward them, and I too feel good. I protect my sub and in return, my little bitch is obedient, devoted. The safety and trust we share allow me to know my dominance will be guided by giving reward, instead of inducing fear. Fuck fear. Fear breeds destruction and shrouds kink culture in a fixed space of immoral darkness. My exploration of kink assimilates my sexual reconstruction.

My dom role forces me to consider my power directly. It kindly locates a place for me to harness and actualize my control, beyond my relationship. How I have come to understand dominance is outside of the dark myths of leather. I use domination as an escape from socialized definitions of who gets to imbibe the delectably dangerous substance of power, control to my body and power to myself. As a dom, I am my own lover. Incorporating this facet of consciousness into my sexual experiences clarifies my relationship between sex and life. I surrender to how submission functions to release my little bitch. I explore them through this knowledge in conjunction with accepting and performing dominance. As my lover flirts with gays in the leather archives, I roll my eyes although I like to watch. As my lover follows me around, to me it’s clear they are my little bitch. Interactions that are not sex itself are sexually relevant in my relationship. Submission and dominance clarify how I can decouple intimacy and sex while still celebrating the connectivity between the two.

***

My little bitch tells me submission is an active process. They follow my rules; rules that I put forth, to which they agree. They want to be good. They know what I want. Following the rules makes the mundane transform into a sexual realm within our daily experiences. Whether it is a mug of black coffee at 9:00 PM, or keeping track of my phone. They know what I want as they writhe under my body. I tightly hold them down. They take on a dramatic presence as a bratty babygirl while I suffocate their dick with my hand. Submission permits safety through powerlessness. Submission renders freedom for thrill in the release of control. Our actions enable a symbolic representation of love, completely outside of gender. We both crave the dick I do not have. Play becomes a space to create a new dichotomy of gender; one where it can be performed, extended, and subverted. When my little bitch submits to me, it feels good for them to be good for me. But they simultaneously shape the rough edges of my dominance with their tender desires and boundaries. I tell my lover what I want and ask them how they feel. I examine their desires and do not control how my lover feels for themself. They are submissive, but also empowered. During play, my sub is actively expressing; actively communicating, and actively behaving in order to seek release from queers’ allotted powerlessness. My lover is rewarded by the pleasure of being dominated; their pleasure. We come and we become. I tremble as I withdraw from pleasure. I feed them their cum. My lover wants to be held. I untangle their eyelashes and ponder the amazing glimmer. I see past the teary rims of their eyes. I peer deep into my reward—the pleasure they find in release. They softly quiver. They are to be a pretty girl; I dress them in my underwear.

Categories
Temporal Reflections

Limburg

by Gabe Schneier | Temporal Reflections | Fall 2018

Julia DiFiori, how the light gets in

It was early March when the email came in.

“Dear Toby,” it read, “I’m wondering if you are the widow of an Ernest Rosenthal, and if so whether you might have information about his family.” Toby Rosenthal, my grandmother, lives in the sleepy southern-belle city of Richmond, Virginia. She was dubious of this email from a German graduate school student named Markus Streb, inquiring about family records for personal research. It felt odd, she told me, to get a message out of the blue from someone who found her on Facebook. She called my aunt, who revealed that she, too, had received an email from this sender about a year prior, and pushed my grandma to respond. When she did, Markus’ requests were simple. He was doing research on Holocaust remembrance in Germany and was contacting individual families to find documents that could add a personal dimension to his data. Specifically, Markus was investigating the histories of Jewish families in the town of Dauborn, where he himself grew up. His search led him to an interest in my great-grandmother, Joanna Strauss. My grandma filled him in on the history, informing Markus that Joanna had moved to a town called Limburg after marrying her husband Max Rosenthal. She scanned and sent him a few pictures that she had.

The photos were taken from a small collection of documents that my family has recording my late grandfather’s past life. There are also letters, written before and after my grandfather and his mother left Germany. The story of their fleeing Nazi Germany was majorly significant to my grandfather’s identity and has become an important history to the whole family.

“I don’t remember much from that trip,” he used to say, “but I do remember on the plane we took to America they served olives. That was the first time I ever tried an olive, and I hated it. I told my mother, ‘If this is what they eat in America, I want to go back.” The memories would then usually come back about life in Limburg, going to school there, going over to an aunt’s house every weekend for dinner. But I first heard the story of my great grandfather’s migration from my mom.

My grandpa and Joanna had left early on in the regime of the Third Reich, sensing that things would likely only get worse. Thanks to their foresight, leaving was relatively easy. My grandfather, however, was not so quick to part with his homeland. He had a sense of pride in his side job as a caretaker of the local synagogue, and he stayed to carry out his duty. As fate would have it, events took a tragic turn. He was living in the synagogue during Kristallnacht, and like so many others, bought tickets to leave Germany promptly after that night. He boarded a ship called the SS St. Louis in 1939, headed for Miami, with 936 other refugees. When the ship reached the US, Roosevelt had decided not to take any more refugees. The boat docked in Cuba while the captains argued with government officials back and forth for 40 days, but in the end the boat was forced to turn back to Europe. Max disembarked in France and briefly worked as a cook in the foreign legion, but when the Vichy government came to power he was deported. The last that Ernest and Joanna heard from him, he was in Auschwitz. I don’t know exactly why he did this or what his hopes were, but the story is always told in my family with an emphasis on his bravery. I’ve never entirely understood his decision to stay but I’ve come to respect it for what it was.

For my family, Max’s story is the sort of identity-defining story that many families have—stories that capture the essence of a different era and explain a foundational aspect of who they are. I’ve come to think of it as a story about bravery and fortitude in the face of adversity. It’s also about change, preserving traditions and upholding ideals. There is a powerful idealism and hope in his choice to stay and work at the synagogue. Yet the story is also about the cruel injustices of society, and the pain that it inflicts on the powerless. It wasn’t Max’s optimism that led him to doom. He found a boat ticket thanks to the goodwill of his neighbors and those personally invested in seeing him returned to safety. There were even passengers on the St. Louis who managed to leave since they already had US visas. In so many ways, it was a sheer twist of fate that stopped him from making his way to be rejoined with his wife and child.

This story left a paper trail through Max’s letters home. Eventually, my grandma’s correspondence with Markus developed into an exchange of information and stories, her sending him these records and him responding with interesting finds from his research. After about a year of being pen pals, the the idea was floated that my family ought to come to Germany for a tour with him.

We made a plan. We were going to travel back to Limburg, where my family started. Going back would be, in a sense, to displace the story as we knew it, to give it color and a new level of familiarity but also potentially to find the cracks and seams between oral history and reality. It would also mean, in some degree, finding a way to fit our family’s story into the shared history of so many other diasporic families around the world with German-Jewish immigrant roots and relatives who died in the Holocaust. In getting closer to the family’s story, we were also learning about what it meant not just for us, but for Germans like Markus who were trying to forge their own relationship with this troubled past.

Before leaving on our trip, Markus sent us an itinerary of his plans. It began:

Monday, 20 August
10:30 Stadtarchiv (city archive) Limburg, close to the cathedral with archivist, maybe the mayor
Mühlberg 2, Limburg
Tuesday, 21 August
10:30 Peter-Paul-Cahensly School Limburg/Blumenrod, gathering with pupils who visited the Auschwitz memorial this year, respectively last year. They held a minute in silence for Max Rosenthal during their visit at the Auschwitz memorial.

I was in Oberlin for the summer when I got the email. Things were slow and I was spending a lot of time enjoying solitude. I hadn’t been home all summer and the prospect of the chaos and foot-stepping of intimate family vacation was daunting. My anxiety was balanced by my enthusiasm for experiencing a new place and interest in the family history, but upon hearing about these details, my first reaction of excitement was followed by what felt like an almost obligatory ambivalence. I didn’t feel like I had anything in particular to share with German high schoolers about their country’s past. Up to that point, I had almost no relationship at all to my German heritage. With no common ground besides the violent relationship of our elder ancestors, what kind of conversation could really take place? I knew that Markus was studying the ways in which Holocaust memory was honored and upheld in German society from a critical lens, and while I appreciated his arrangements, I had never felt the pressure of representation that this event seemed to entail. It felt like a challenge, and it infused our trip with a sense of purpose and meaning that was quite daunting to me.

Photos by the author

The rest of my family did not share my feelings exactly. When I spoke to my parents, they seemed to relish the opportunity. I didn’t understand why at the time, but in retrospect I think that for them, it was a way to carry out an important interaction of a societal occurrence that has affected their lives, or at least their parents lives, in some ways. My mom mentioned to me recently that she has never really seen herself as one to fill these shoes due to the privileged American life that she has led.

No one in my family went through concentration camps and survived to tell the story. In many United States Jewish communities, these survivors are the ones whose stories are most told and given priority. In the setting of small-town Germany, survivor stories are much more rare, giving the opportunity for my great-grandfather’s story to take on the importance that it truly does hold. My grandfather and great-grandmother escaped, yes, but they grew up in an entirely new country with little money and no father or husband, respectively. This was the holocaust for them, and they survived it. My parents were excited by the packed schedule and focused on the uniqueness of the opportunity that we were being afforded. Encouraged by their attitude, I halfway came around, dwelling for the anticipatory period in the overlapping spaces of submissive dread and nervous enthusiasm.

The fact that none of my family properly slept during the seven-hour flight made me question my parents’ outward appearance of confident enthusiasm. When we disembarked in the Frankfurt airport and made our way to the rental car station, there was some palpable tension. I fell back on old habits of horsing around with my brother and my Mom and Grandmother hung close together while my Dad arranged for the car. The hour-long drive from Frankfurt to Limburg took us past pleasant views of the German countryside. We arrived at our hotel, which was a new building on the outskirts of town. The rooms had a sort of prefabricated feel to them, complete with built-in furniture and bright color-themed rooms with full-wall, photo-printed wallpaper that collaged local landmarks with local maps. After an hour of settling and resting, I went downstairs to meet Markus with the rest of my family. We sat outside in the driveway of the hotel while we waited.

“There he is,” said my Grandma, as a 30-something man approached us. He was tall and rather gangly, with thin blond hair and an outdoorsy look. He took off his sunglasses and smiled as he approached us. We all said hellos and he bent to shake each of our hands, then gave my grandmother a hug.

“So what’s the plan?” my mom inquired, recalling our strict schedule.

“If you are feeling ready, we will go now to see the archivist. He has prepared some things that I think you will like to see.” I looked around to see if anyone else was not feeling ready.

“Sounds great!” my dad proclaimed, and we started walking into town. We crossed the highway that separated our hotel from the town center and began walking. We went past a salon, chain drug store, movie theater and another hotel with an open-air ground floor restaurant. The street began to slope up and we started seeing older buildings. They were built with exposed timber beams, usually with one on each corner. In the upper portion of theses buildings, the exposed beams were used decoratively, criss-crossed over the white plaster facade to form triangular sections. The streets became cobblestone and the stores gave way to small restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating. We had reached the old town center. As Markus led us, he asked about when my family had last been there.

“It was in the early ’80s, maybe ’82,” my mom said.

“Yes, with the group project to bring back survivors,” my grandma filled in. “How did you get in touch with the archivist? What should we expect?” asked my dad.

“He has been going through the things they have there and has pulled out all of the things—what would you call them? Sorry, my English is a little not so good,” Markus laughed.

“Files? Artifacts?” my Dad offered.

“Yes. He has found everything that you might want to see. I think there are some newspapers, and marriage documents. But you will see soon.”

We stopped at a towering church, made of the same half-timbered red beams and white plaster as the other buildings. It has slightly more decoration and the paint looked brand new. Many of the red beams were carved with yellow-painted ornamentation and the facade was dictated by rows of gothic-looking pointed arches in interspersed rows at various scales. The spires of the building towered above the stout structures around it. Past the church, we came to a lookout point that showed off the vista from the top of the hill. We took in our surroundings briefly, and Markus talked a bit about the town’s buildings and history. We followed Markus through a stone gateway to a small courtyard where the government building was, and then entered the archives.

Inside, we were welcomed by two middle-aged German men. Markus introduced us the the archivist, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man with white hair who wore a short sleeved button-down shirt. The mayor of Limburg stood beside him, wearing a dark suit and squared-off glasses. He gave each of us a firm handshake and with a tone of hospi-tality and seriousness, the two then asked us into the archive room. Inside, two younger men sat around a rectangular arrangement of tables with papers and books opened and spread out neatly across their surface.

As the archivist, his students, and Markus seemed to buzz around solemnly stating the significance of each piece of historical evidence, I began to feel even more of my exhaustion. I tried meagerly to keep my attention on what the man and his students were explaining to me. My attention was waning with my energy despite my knowledge of the significance of what stood in front of me. I stared at the yellowed paper in front of me, hoping for a wave of historical connection to rise off of the page. As I settled down, I slowly became more focused, and it actually began to happen.

I felt as if I was in a state of meditation as the archivists spoke in a monotone German accent about each of the documents in front of me. This one here was a birth record, kept since the early 1800s in Limburg and Dauborn, of my great-grandmother. “It took me quite some time to find this, because we had to contact the archive of Dauborn to get it brought here,” said the archivist quietly. This book, the one in front of me, was a marriage announcement.

“There you will see, it says ‘Maks Ro-sen-tal and Yohanna Strauss’ in, em, 1886.” Everyone looked toward the newspapers lying in a bound book in front of me. The bold, elongated sans-serif font of the word “Karla” jumped out at me. It was their second daughter, said Carol, who died from influenza as a child. She was my mother’s namesake. Around the faux-plaque design of the announcement were ads for furniture stores, typewriters, and pharmacies.

When the archivist and his assistant had finished presenting us with their findings, we all lingered in the small but well-kempt library, taking time to look at the documents ourselves. I was the designated photographer for the day, and spent a great deal of time taking photos. One of the most striking documents was a record of residence that listed, on a 4” by 5” card, the place of birth, known addresses, and place of death for each citizen. At the end of the list for Max was a line written in bright red script that marked his emigration to Cuba on the St. Louis. After that was a lines in pencil that I couldn’t make out. I turned to Markus to confirm my suspicions, which he did.

“Yeah. That says ‘Later taken to Auschwitz,’” he told me. Confusion washed over me. Should I be upset by this? It was material evidence of extreme cruelty and persecution, documented casually and without affect. I scrutinized the piece of paper. Why was it written in pencil? Did someone want to leave open the possibility of literal erasure? Or was it scrawled as an afterthought as it appeared to be?

Try as I might, my scrutiny brought nothing to the surface. My fascination with the historical fact of the document gave way to a satisfaction in its conformation of the narrative that I knew. I also felt some long-lost desire to be angry or feel disdain at the dispossession of my history. But there was nothing. I felt no anger, no simulated pain or disgust—none of the things that I remember being invoked in me when I was a child learning for the first time what had happened to the Jewish people in Germany whom I was connected to.

Some change had taken place within me since then. When I was in the fifth grade, I learned about this history for the first time, and I was moved by the stories that I was told to anger and pain and disgust. I felt connected to my relatives and to the Jewish people as a whole. I felt connected to my friends who had similar family stories to mine. But not as much anymore. It wasn’t gone entirely, but it was not at the forefront of my feeling, and seemed like an impression that was formed in my mind but was not registering emotionally anymore. I did not confront that consciously in the moment, but I think that in my nearly-conscious attempt to push back against it, I had acknowledged, maybe for the first time, that it was true—I was not in mourning. There was no more grief to be felt, no stages to go through. I was past acceptance even or maybe trailing out of it slowly.

In the corner of the room stood a banner about six feet tall. “Max Rosenthal” was printed in large letters across the top, and it featured a short biography as well as reprinted images of old photographs. This, more than any of the artifacts, was moving to my family, especially to my mother and grandmother. Both of them had travelled to Germany before. It was in ’86 on a trip that was organized specially by the German government for the families of holocaust survivors. They had toured Limburg with my grandfather before he died, met residents and learned about life there through his and the other survivors’ memories. I think that coming back for a second time to see this person whose memories they had been entertaining and whose footsteps they had been walking in, honored by the town, was powerful. It meant something to all of us that there had evidently been effort put into memorializing this figure who was already a subject of my family stories.

We all felt welcomed by our experience at the archives. It was a new level of attention to personal experience for my mother and grandmother, and an entirely new and rewarding experience for the rest of my family. After the rush of that day, we took some time to settle in and explore Limburg a little, meeting with Markus and one of his professors for lunch. On our way to the restaurant, Markus stopped us at a house in order to point out a new monument.

“Ah, here it is,” he stopped on one side of the cobblestone street next to a house and we crowded around him. Squatting, he pointed to a small golden square, about the size of half a chocolate bar. Max’s name was engraved in it, along with a few sentences in German. We paused and then kept walking as Markus explained that these small monuments were called ‘stumbling stones’ and could be found all across Germany.

That afternoon, as we drove with Markus to the edge of the town limits, I asked what we might expect.

“There will be a translator,” was Markus’ reply, “And the students have prepared some things to show you and talk to you about, I think, and then you can maybe speak to them a little about Max.”

I was getting nervous. I haven’t set foot in a high school classroom since graduating from mine, and wasn’t eager to be in that setting. On top of that, I had no idea what to expect in a conversation about the holocaust with German high schoolers.

The school was a modern building made of brick, glass, and green-painted steel. Inside, we were led by the principal and teacher through the communal center to a classroom. About 30 students sat in a circle, and a translator stood next to the principal at a podium. A few other adults were present, and we stood around mingling briefly before the principal asked if we were ready to begin. He gave a brief speech about the school’s recent visit to concentration camps before turning things over to the students.

In a clumsy mobilization, we all arose from out seats and went outside to a nearby courtyard to see a series of posters that students had made in groups. Each poster showed images from their trips—many were of concentration camps and featured recognizable images of Auschwitz. The students told us solemnly how incomprehensible the experience had been. A boy with a swash of black hair wearing a graphic T-shirt and athletic shorts was explaining the trip to us.

“We all knew of this before, but when we actually saw it…” he trailed off.

“It makes it much more of a reality to see something like this,” his classmate, a slightly taller, blond boy wearing square glasses, finished his thought.

“Yes, when you learn about it in class, you know that it is terrible, but then, to see it, you begin to really understand how terrible it was,” the first finished.

The planned activity had us make rounds of the courtyard, stopping in front of groups of students who stood in front of the posters they had created after the trip. Each told us about a different part of their experience, with background research before the trip and thought exercises after. As I watched, my unease and feeling of being out of place grew. I felt unprepared.

I couldn’t bring myself to stand and listen alongside my Mom and Grandmother. As they nodded and interjected occasionally to clarify things, I started feeling impossibly distant. I knew what the kid in front of me was feeling, to a degree. I could easily remember what it was like to be in his shoes—confronted with a historical atrocity that you have only just begun to be able to comprehend, trying to express and develop that notion of what it means.

Categories
Town & Gown

Ankle Deep in Mud & Water

by Lydia Moran | Town & Gown | Spring 2018

Photos by the author

Morality & perfection in Oberlin’s landscape.


PREFACE 

There is a Gnostic theory that Eve’s serpent, rather than a harbinger of Satan, was actually a gift from Sophia (Σοφíα, wisdom). 

His message was: This world is false. Your reality, this garden, has been contrived by Yaldabaoth, and he is insane. 

So when Eve ate of the apple she fell not into sin, but into a state of freedom from illusion. 

***

MUD 

You need not worry about me; the most that I worry about is that I shall get stuck in the mud and cant get out.

Oberlin student’s letter home, 1851

Mud! Dripping from boots, from the wheels of carriages, from the hooves of runaway hogs; tracked across the floors of Tappan Hall, on skirts, on hands, under nails, smeared on books. The principle ingredient in the early days of Oberlin was mud. The wet, clay-ey mess of (mostly) fallow, thick earth on everything. If you haven’t already noticed, Oberlin is a swamp, and was to an even more alarming extent before the college found a way to properly drain itself. This mess, this swamp, is described in one student’s letter home from 1845: “The soil is very clayey, I should think, for when it rains it is very muddy and there are so few sidewalks that it is very difficult to walk more than a rod without getting a free shoe in the mud.” Another student wrote, “I was more disappointed in the appearance of the soil, than in any one thing. It looks almost like a swamp.” One resident was so taken with the “Ohio Mud” that he devoted an entire newspaper article to the subject titled simply: “Mud!!” Tenured faculty member James M. Buchanan abandoned his position in part because of the swamp, and Reverend Charles Grandison Finney himself wrote that “had it not been for the good hand of God in helping us at every step, the institution would have been a failure because of its ill-judged location.” 

***

THE PARTING OF TREES 

So why journey away from the rolling hills of the East coast to this glacial plain, this muddy, muddy swamp? 

It seems this “hastily decided upon” location was chosen less for its individual qualities than for the fact that Ohio, not so long ago, was the frontier. Ohio, and likewise Oberlin, were virtuous in their separation from other parts of the world, not necessarily in and of themselves. The benefits of separateness were the foundational ideology that brought Oberlin’s first missionaries bushwhacking. Oberlin was not just different from other institutions of higher learning back on the east coast, it was separate. It existed “eight miles from everywhere,” meaning “eight miles from sin” (according to Oberlin historian Geoffrey Blodgett), and the corruptions that festered in more civilized parts of the frontier. Yet this connects Oberlin to the most vital facet American historical self-imagining: Manifest Destiny. It was then possible (and important) to create a perfect utopia, a nineteenth-century hankering that did not receive as large an amount of popularity again until the sixties. 

Much like Oberlin’s founders, those first students arrived in this area via a parting of trees. A Mrs. Dascomb wrote of her first journey to Oberlin, “When we were passing through the woods, I was so delighted with the black squirrels, the big trees, & above all, the beautiful wildflowers,” that at times while riding on the carriage she forgot to watch out for “scraggly limbs that every now and then gave us a rude brush.” She almost “[got her] eyes torn out, seconded perhaps by an unceremonious lash from a neighboring bough, wd. [would] Recall [her] to the duty of self preservation. Glad were [they] when an opening in the forest dawned upon [them] & Oberlin was seen.” And what could she have seen? The tangled fingers of budding trees part ways to reveal a (mostly) barren clearing. A few structures shudder closely together, a few men meander around in pairs, talking in low voices. If she arrives around sunset then, stepping down from the carriage to narrowly avoid moistening her laced shoes in a puddle, she sees her reflection, windswept hair blending with the sky above, softly graced now with light orange wisps. 

***

BITS OF BONE // ORIGINAL LANDSCAPE 

Oberlin itself was less than aesthetically appealing for many of its first visitors. There is an abundance of students’ letters home complaining of the lack of scenery, opportunities for swimming, and soil that was, well, ubiquitous. One disgruntled visitor wrote of Oberlin, “In the first place it is surrounded by trees. You cannot see more than two miles at the farthest… The bildings are not very near each other and probelay would look very lonesom to you as you are accostomed to see them surrounded by shade trees and [shrubbery] while here it is a rare thing to see even a rose bush.” 

Though Oberlin was surrounded by a dense “primeval” forest, for some reason it never occured to first settlers to save some of these trees on the campus proper. By 1846, only two trees stood in Tappan. Likewise, the abundance of mud made sidewalks hard to construct, the clay soil made farmer’s lives difficult, and even in the regions near Plum (Plumb) Creek where natural beauty was more readily available to be gazed upon, “old log bits, bits of bone, peaces of leather, &c—stumps, rail fences &c. &c.” got in the way. Yet, “when attempting to take in a different point your heels fly from under you,” and the observer would fall flat in a puddle of Ohio mud. Much of Oberlin’s early relationship with its environment consisted of embattling it in a struggle, or taking refuge from it. Frontier communities, while offering the unique ability to world-make away from constructed civilization, also had the unique challenges of whatever natural environment they chose to settle on. 

To add to this muddy mess were farm animals and fowl running amok across the village. In 1841, “75 Hogs Turned loose in the beautiful Village of Oberlin—to ravage, waste & discomfort & Destroy the fairest portions of our gardens, vex the peaceable Inhabitants, and in particular to war against to most defenceless, Ladies & Children.” The loose hogs raised such an issue that not one or two, but three whole committees were formed under town ordinances for the explicit and sole purpose of dealing with the abundance of rampant farm animals. The animals were apparently not passive trespassers, either. Citizens often reported being “assaulted” by wayward livestock. Cows, pigs, and chickens would “swarm upon and soil the sidewalks and crowd themselves into whatever door yard is open to their forcible assault.” Individuals who refused or neglected to contain livestock would be “notified & admonished” and “void of all regard to the rights of his neighbor & the community.” A hog was not “morally responsible for his actions,” so “the owner must of course be morally responsible for all trespasses by his Hogs.” 

The hogs served to muddy the streets and were, in part, what made it necessary to implement sidewalks and boardwalks. The mud made just the act of walking in early Oberlin hilariously difficult. The few boardwalks constructed to aid foot travel proved slippery as a result of poor construction and/or livestock tracking mud onto their surfaces, and numerous letters home detail students falling over themselves while walking, especially those students wearing petticoats, or, “the fairer sex.” Apparently, sidewalks were also capable of inhering moral virtue. In 1861, the editor of the local paper declared, “One fourth of the walks in our otherwise moral and orthodox village are indecently dangerous. A proper degree of risk is exhilarating, but the amount we daily encounter, is destructive and discouraging.” 

Here, Oberlin’s land management blends oddly with the village’s perceived moral duty to be a tidy, well-ordered community and live in accordance with the town’s founding sensibilities. After pushing their way through the trees and settling in a swamp, clear lines needed to be drawn between the natural and the civilized. Which is ironic, considering Oberlin left civilization in order to exist outside of what it deemed to be morally corrupt. Yet Oberlin felt it had a duty to prove to the rest of the world, and indeed to God, that despite its departure, it was still a suitable, perhaps even utopian, alternative to civilization elsewhere. Oberlin was infused with morality, and apparently the things that were most likely enemies of this morality were natural elements that threatened to overtake an otherwise proper society. Yet even still, Oberlin had mud, it had hogs, and these were physical markers of its geographic and ideological departure. Oberlin was in the frontier, but only so long as these natural frontier elements didn’t encroach on its proper society. Hogs were only morally corrupt when on the loose, and somehow a “degree of risk is exhilarating,” at least according to the paper.

***

BITS OF BONE // FIRST WOMEN 

Though Oberlin loves to pride itself on being the pioneer of coeducation, Oberlin’s first women were admitted on the basis of a “means to end,” according to Oberlin historian and former professor of history Geoffrey Blodgett. Apparently, Oberlin found it primarily important to educate the “minds of those who were going to make first impressions on small children.” The more Christian teachers and missionaries, the better. 

Female students at Oberlin had the apparent reputation of being far less outwardly radical as a direct result of coeducation. Blodgett cites some nebulously termed “recent studies in women’s history,” which show that emancipated college women in the nineteenth century became huge agitators in the suffragist cause, settlement house projects, and other reform movements. Yet these “agitating” women were mostly recruited out of women’s institutions in the East. Blodgett claims, “One can find very little evidence of feminist militance at Oberlin before the Civil War, and when it emerged it was slapped down.” Even after the war when suffrage movements gained traction in other parts of the country, Oberlin was “strangely passive” and perhaps even “hostile” on the subject. Women were more likely to be indoctrinated into missionary work or married off after graduating Oberlin. “Perhaps part of the reason for this,” says Blodgett, “is that Oberlin women in their formative college years learned stern daily lessons in how to behave in the presence of men. They learned that they were expected to behave like ladies.” 

Yet women were rarely even in the presence of men. The sexes were separated in all areas of college life except the most highly surveilled: dining halls and classrooms. Up until the 1890s, even library hours were segregated. According to Blodgett, “Having embarked in somewhat ad hoc fashion upon authentically radical arrangements for bringing large amounts of men and women together for educational purposes, college authorities spent the rest of the century trying to curb the most feared consequences of what they had done.” What could be more damaging to a pious Christian community’s reputation than a “sexual scandal”? So in order to prove itself worthy of existence, an “air of conservatism” surrounded the institution with regard to coeducation. Extra stress was put on Oberlin’s first women to “behave.”

Women were also, not surprisingly, relegated to the domestic tasks required in village homes and dormitories. They washed dishes, ironed, and sewed for other students. This provided a welcome break from the natural fatigue the female brain was inevitably prone to after spending a period of time studying. One woman wrote on behalf of the “young ladies”: “After having our mind absorbed in some abstract subject until we become weary with intense thought, we repair to some household duty & the mind & body becoming relaxed, we return to the page we left & grasp the thoughts with avidity, & instead of the pale face which too often belongs to the student we see a continual freshness & glow… here domestic economy, which is true should be inoculated by the mother is carried on to still greater perfection, here knowledge of domestic affairs, high intellectual culture & even refinement of manners are considered as consistent with each other.” 

***

PERFECTION // MANUAL LABOR

It is primarily in the realm of educational innovation that the Oberlin colony tried to find the latchkey to perfection.

Geoffrey Blodgett 

The domestic chores relegated to Oberlin’s first women were part of a larger system of manual labor, enacted to both combat the natural obstacles to frontier life and somehow instill in young men and women the virtues ingrained through laboring in the woods. The system was an attempt to both engage with Oberlin’s landscape and cultivate its likeness to God’s kingdom. In the eyes of the institution, Learning and Labor were inseparable from one another: “It meets the wants of man as a compound being, and prevents the common amazing waste of money, time, health, and life,” proclaimed the first College report. 

Oberlin became known as the “poor man’s college,” in contrast to older institutions in the East. It allowed students of little means an education at the cost of their physical labor in Oberlin’s initial construction. Indeed, the system’s ability to provide alternate modes for covering the financial cost of an education was in part what attracted Black student applicants—some formerly enslaved people, some not—to apply. Black students seeking college degrees in the nineteenth century were met with countless obstacles, financial and otherwise, that resulted from systemic racism; Oberlin was by no means exempt from this reality, but did create limited opportunity within it. This system allowed lower income students, both Black and white, to access an Oberlin education, though not all who applied were in need of the financial assistance. As a result, many of the earliest applications highlighted an applicant’s moral virtue, physical prowess, and good nature, without any mention of scholarship. A Middlebury student wrote to Oberlin in an expression of his wish to transfer: “I think the classical books which are studyed [at Middlebury] have a bad influence in forming the characters of young men. They have in a great measure an attendance to corrupt the habits, morals, and minds of those who pursue them, to say nothing of the time which is lost in commiting to memory ideas which are of no consequence.” 

One student wrote in 1837, just four years after town and college were founded: “Nearly all the labor since this Institution was was first established, has been chopping, logging and burning brush; and this too, a great portion of this year, ankle deep in mud and water!” Oberlin’s earliest students cleared the land, constructed buildings, conducted special projects for private residences, etc. One early timecard reads: “2 hours burning Stumps, 3 Hours building walk for Prof. Finney, 3 Hours hanging Gate etc., 4½ Hours preparing … sewer for Prof. Finney.” Eight cents an hour was the going rate for shoveling manure; seven cents for “picking up sticks.” 

In service of this belief in Oberlin’s heavenly potential, students worked: felling trees, cutting the stumps away from their roots, dragging the stumps to a brush pile, lighting the pile on fire, standing and staring into the flames, covered in mud, cicadas droning overhead, the smell of wood smoke drifting around them… 

The driving force behind this “perfectionism” that influenced Tappan and his peers was a departure from belief in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Calvinism placed heavy emphasis on mankind’s original sin: when Eve bit into the apple and fraternized with Satan in the garden. Because of this sin, Calvinists believed each person had their own pre-determined fate in the afterlife. The ripple effects of Eve’s first sin had made it entirely impossible for humans to not sin. 

But the breakup of Calvinist theology was ushered in by an age that was no longer entirely status-oriented, but celebrated the achievements of the self-made man. Along with this, a heavier emphasis was placed on human achievements, and the possibility of human perfectionism. This is partially why Oberlin’s founders felt motivated to create a utopian community, why they placed so much emphasis on the morality of this community, and why they ultimately held the men and women behaving in this community to high standards of judgement. They hoped that they could somehow teach perfect behavior through manual labor and later, the inauguration of coeducation. 

Drawings by Jamie Vincent

***

PERFECTION // LADIES AS CIVILIZING INFLUENCES 

In the same way working the land was thought to bring about stronger character in Oberlin students, women were also thought to be civilizing and moralizing forces for their male peers. Apparently, working alongside women “exploded” the male idea that “a lady is a toy or a plaything” according to the Oberlin Evangelist. 

One male student wrote after moving to an all-male boarding situation that he missed dining with women because, “Without the restraining and refining influence of ladies, it is found impossible to maintain decorum, and instead of our meals being a place to cultivate refinement and to refresh our minds from our studies, it is only a place for satisfying hunger.” 

What is it about women that was so able to provide such “refreshment?” The same student wrote earlier: “The society of such a collection of boarders, is just what could be expected from a lot of young men living secluded from ladies. Some would like to have everything carried on in the best of order, but others only wish to swallow their food and run.” Manual labor, a system that made for “sound bodies and clear minds,” perhaps possessed refreshing properties similar to those conferred by sitting next to a woman and engaging her in conversation over dinner. Like a cool breeze, like a stroll in the garden after being cooped up in the library all day. Something different, something immutable, something primal. 

By their very presence, women allowed Oberlin another step forward to that ephemeral latchkey to perfection—men were made closer to the ideal civilization through socializing with the opposite sex. Having women around perhaps kept Oberlin from becoming a sort of primeval male colony in the woods. Having women nearby was also a way for men to manage their sexual urges. The presence of real women, the very hum of them intellectually and physically working, supposedly put male urges to rest—like a lullaby.

Yet while feminine presence was grounding for men, it was also akin to a fresh breeze. So their etherealness, their natural mannerisms, had to be reigned in, segregated to avoid too much enticement. A balance was struck between the natural and the civilized. Perhaps we can draw a parallel here to those unscrupulous hogs: only immoral when on the loose. 

***

ARBORETUM // NEURASTHENIA

The natural look of the Arb has occasionally had to withstand planning and domesticating impulses brought to bear upon it from both town and college.

Robert Stinson, Oberlin Tribune columnist 

It is funny then, that Oberlin women were in apparent need of a place of retreat themselves, and that this place of retreat could only be located far from men, far from academia, at the edge of civilization itself. 

The mid-1870s saw increasing discussion about a need for “a place for women to walk in quiet meditation.” This place had to be, most importantly, out of the way and in seclusion from male students. It had to be physically and socially separated from men: “a tract of land of seventeen acres containing the only bit of primeval forest left immediately adjacent to the village,” the same forest we now call “the arb.” 

Ladies Grove itself was a much smaller area of the sweeping acreage of the Oberlin Arboretum, located a bit northwest from what students now consider to be the arb proper, with its reservoirs and prairies and illegal fire pits. It was an alleviation of an Oberlin-specific coeducational dilemma, keeping men separated from women in all spaces not heavily supervised to avoid a sexual scandal, and even more so, women seperated from men, to calm their nerves in peaceful pursuit of “contemplative rewards.” Like all other aspects of the lives of women on this campus, the Ladies Grove was another attempt at keeping pure the impressionable minds of the “fairer sex.” Again, Oberlin reached for perfectionism by way of separation. Ladies could reach their ideal serene state outside the civic lines drawn by others. 

If we can understand Ohio as an imagined frontier again, the water of Plum Creek running past miles and miles of “primeval” forest, separated infrequently by agricultural and clustered communities… If we place these women walking at the edge of this, teetering perhaps on the final line drawn between rural piety and rural wilderness… 

It was a world unto itself where these Victorian women could find cure for their “hysteria,” in the warm woolen arms of this wilderness. During the early eighteenth century, Neurasthenia, a make-believe “nervous affliction” originally attributed to the possession of a uterus, was increasingly thought rather to be a neurological phenomenon brought about by the stresses of daily life. The Oberlin Arboretum was at first a place where Victorian ladies could escape these stresses. Perhaps separation for these women had a similar effect to the one Oberlin’s founders pursued when they left the coast; salvation by separation, revelation by seclusion. 

When Eve bit into that apple, was she given knowledge that her world had been contrived by an insane deity? What messages, what wisdom, was imparted to those women in the fluttering of thousands of leaves? The world you imagine to be real is actually fabricated to limit you. What else could quell the “hysteria” bred by an insane patriarchy? Where else could liberation from illusion become possible? 

Truthfully, there’s not much in the Ladies Grove. Two engraved brick posts swept off the intersection of Morgan and South Prospect Street by the curved, muddied arm of a footpath mark its entrance to this day. Down past these pillars, a hill slopes gently into a forest interspersed with thin trees and tangled underbrush. On cloudy days, when the trees are barren, the forest is foreboding, the spaces between trees reveal more spaces between other trees and the cemetary to the right stands in ominous salute. But when it is sunny, maybe at the beginning of spring, or at dusk in late fall, the forest stands in subtly perceptible communication with itself. Frogs murmur, squirrels perform acrobatics overhead; and in the late hours of the day, the jeers of cicadas merge into one impenetrable wall of warm sound. 

Is this what Eve heard as she bit into the apple?

***

MUD

Several women glide through the grove in pairs; a few tread in solitude. One lone woman stoops to kick a clump of mud from her shoe, another snaps a twig in half as she passes under a low branch. Around and around they move, the plumes of their dresses elegantly spill out from their hips like clouds, like pockets of air.

The sun begins to set, turning the sky to a pink and orange froth. They murmur, blending their voices with the loudening symphony of frogs, the babbling creek. 

It gets darker, the light trickles in grey. Few women remain; most have carried off to make curfew, to slide into bed, to light their candles. But several don’t. They continue breathing deeply, trailing fingers across moss, across lichen. Suddenly, one woman trips. Her counterparts look over their shoulders and smirk but she is unfazed, she wanted to be closer to the ground, anyway. 

Fingers moving cautiously now, the woman cranes her neck forwards and spies a small boulder. She plants her elbow in the soil and rolls it over to reveal a tangled knot of earthworms. 

Most women are gone now. One stays. 

This woman takes the knot into her lap and watches as it strains against the pressed linen of her dress. Then the worms move deeper, they are looking for a parting in the soil. 

NOTE: I want to acknowledge the little information available on the experiences of Black women within the college’s domestic labor system and their role in the college’s moral negotiations within coeducation. The works cited in this piece focus on the experiences of the earliest female students at Oberlin and do so without fully acknowledging the disparity in experiences between women of different identities. Published in 1943, Robert Samuel Fletcher’s A History of Oberlin College in particular generalizes the student body’s experiences as those of white students, erasing the individual experiences of students of color. I sought to write a piece focusing on Oberlin’s initial relationship with its landscape and how this mirrored the indoctrination of coeducation, but there are many factors beyond gender that influence a student’s experience at Oberlin and it is important to acknowledge these complexities.

Categories
Cultural Miasma

After Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

by Wenna Chen | Cultural Miasma | Spring 2018

Images by Brad Boboc

CONTENT WARNING: This piece involves content concerning sexual assault and suicide. please read with caution and care.


In high school, there was no merry celebration for the end of last period when the 5:00 PM bell rang and the teachers dropped their chalks. Mechanically stuffing books and question sets into their backpacks, two-thirds of my schoolmates proceeded to go to cram schools, where they paid private tutors to hammer knowledge into their brains. On top of the traditional high school curriculum, students in cram schools are expected to take intense courses that coach them to become nothing but test-taking machines. Cram schools blossomed first into a building, then two, then a whole block, and eventually settled down to an entire district. After ten hours of school, thousands of Taiwanese students crowded into the cramming districts, craving more force-fed knowledge that was somehow the golden ticket to attend top-notch universities.

Yi-Han Lin was one of the students whose backpack bore nothing but a dozen question set copies. She was the brightest among us all. With a perfect score on the college entrance exam, she was admitted to the best university in Taiwan for a Bachelor’s degree in pre-med. A few years later, her life took a detour when she decided to study Chinese literature. A few years after that, she stopped her life once and for all, leaving behind only an apologetic note. 

Lin’s life was once mine. We crossed the street in the same blue skirts that covered our knees and white uniforms that gave away the colors of our bras. We squeezed into buses with our packs of friends and giggled loudly, annoying the other passengers. And every night, we studied the mountains of books piled up in our rooms. But at some point, our lives started to stray. Lin took off before me and I’m left to wonder what went wrong. 

***

I can’t pull out what has been thrusted inside me.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Lin’s death would have been swallowed by the indifference of society had her beauty and rare talent failed to garner public admiration. With big brown eyes, round pink cheeks and a dimpled smile, she was the girl that made guys twist their necks when she walked by. Her life should have left its final footprint at a small column of the local newspaper and dissipated from public memory, but the only novel she managed to publish before the end changed everything. With Lin’s name on the cover, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise leaped to the top of the best-seller list in a heartbeat. Beneath its smooth pink cover lay a heartbreaking story tagged with Lin’s note: Based on a true story, for the girl who is still waiting for her angel and B. 

***

I don’t want people to read this book with the sentiment ‘Oh, thank god it’s not real.’ I don’t want them to leave their feelings behind and just move on with their lives.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Every drop of ink in the book was arranged with meticulous discretion. Lin wrote and tweaked until the exquisite metaphors, abandoning traditional syntax and grammatical governance, became something entirely her own. The story of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise centers around a girl named Fang Si-Qi whose life unraveled once the Li family moved into a lavish building in downtown Kaohsiung, the most flourishing city in southern Taiwan. When Guo-Hua Li, a renowned cram school teacher who specialized in Chinese literature, became thirteen-year-old Si-Qi’s new neighbor, he preyed on her innocence. Li was an experienced predator who knew how to exploit teenage girls under his care in the name of love. Si-Qi was thirteen the first time Li raped her, but she was eighteen the last time she woke up beside Li in a motel bed. During their last encounter, Li snapped a shot of Si-Qi’s nude body, which was the final tipping point for Si-Qi. In the end, she was left to spend the rest of her life in a psychiatric hospital.

Lin’s writing is compelling in the most repulsive way. She captivates her audience in the scenes of horror. She didn’t just want her audience to watch and register what happened, she wanted us to feel every scene and the pain that came with it. Because of that, this book was the most miserable reading experience in my life.

***

I am a malicious writer. My writing was never inspired by the noble hope to redeem anyone, not even to save myself. More than anything, I want every single one of you to feel Si-Qi’s pain, the pain that could destroy everyone on earth had they tasted a mere fraction of it.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Fiction or not, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise spoke for Lin when she gave up the chance to utter another word. The news of Lin’s suicide traveled at an unprecedented speed. Within a few hours, the whole of Taiwan woke up to talk about her death over breakfast. On the same day, Lin’s parents issued a statement through her publisher that sent the public over the edge: 

Dear friends,

Thank you for grieving with our loss. There are a few things we’d like to say:

The source of our daughter’s suffering, the nightmare that had haunted her for years, and the reason that her depression was never cured started with the sexual assault that took place in her life eight to nine years ago.

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise was the true and painful reflection of our daughter’s psyche after she was violated by a renowned cram school teacher.

What happened to the characters in the book—Si-Qi, Xiao-Qi, and Yi-Ting—all happened to our daughter. She structured the story that way to protect us and the family.

She wrote the book in hope of stopping similar tragedies from repeating themselves. We ask all parents, boys, girls, and men that know kindness, to protect the suffering Fang Si-Qis with tenderness and warmth.

Our daughter is gone. We would never be able to hear her call for Daddy and Mommy again, but we hope people can remember her by her smile.

Lastly, if you really feel sorry, please pass this message to everyone in Taiwan. Please buy this book and pass it to the parents and children that are in dire need of help and comfort. 

Bing-Huang Lin & Jia-Fang Lai, April 28, 2017 (Guerrilla Publishing)

Stunned by the revelation and poignant emotions in this message, thousands of Taiwanese people flocked to bookstores in search of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. The book skyrocketed up the best-seller list until there weren’t any available copies left for sale. While most of us awaited our copies, those who had dedicated an all-nighter to devour it were all asking the same questions: “Who did this to Yi-Han Lin?” “Who is Guo-Hua Li in real life?” “I know a Chinese literature cram school teacher whose taste in antique collection matches Li’s.” The society would do anything to satisfy its morbid curiosity. As snowballing rumors electrified the public sphere, people were pointing fingers at every suspicious figure that allegedly fit the description of Guo-Hua Li. This unusually polished letter had earned Lin’s parents country-wide empathy and indignation on top of an exuberant sales boost. If the message was furnished with the intent to manipulate public predilection or commercialize Lin’s death, the Lins had overachieved their goals. 

Most of us are vigilantly aware that public rumors, when stirred, become imbued with destructive force. But this case was a rare exception. Infected with profuse indignation, the online community shouldered the burden to answer justice’s calling; people began to tear Lin’s story apart, searching for traces of evidence that would point them to the perpetrator. In the frenzy, Kaohsiung city councilmen Yong-Da Xiao made a blatant statement that rocked the boat. 

In graduate school, Xiao had been an enthusiastic activist who pledged for political democracy in Taiwan along with the 6,000 students marching in the Wild Lily student movement. He then worked as a faculty member in multiple schools around the Kaohsiung area before founding the Kaohsiung Teachers Association and successfully running for three consecutive terms of councilmenship. Seated in the center of a conference room, Xiao combed through his manuscripts as the press settled down. The only poster on the wall behind him plainly read: “Expose faculty predators—there shall not be another Fang Si-Qi.” Swiftly extending his arm to test the microphone, Xiao began the announcement in unwavering composure and confidence: “According to my investigation, the offender is a Chinese literature teacher currently employed by Tong Xin cram school. His name is Kuo-Xing Chen.” In a split second, the room droning with frizzy movements withered into a graveyard of dead silence. Xiao refused to reveal the source of his investigation due to protective confidentiality, but he did not shy from further revealing himself. “I swear on my political career to expose this corrupted teacher. And I will not back off until he admits to what he has done.” 

Immediately, cram schools associated with the accused severed ties with Chen, cancelling all his classes and expelling him from employment. Kuo-Xing Chen’s daughter, an amateur model, was the next to pay the price while her father remained unresponsive to the accusation. Swarming to Tiffany Chen’s modeling fan page, people rained a gruesome attack on her and her family. Tiffany was forced to shut down the page full of hateful comments and lost her career to the gravity of collective speculation. 

At the heat of this rippling havoc, Readmoo, a virtual ebookstore, released a series of videos that documented their interview with Lin prior to her death. In a thin pink blouse that draped loosely over her chest, Lin rested her hands on her criss-crossed knees. She was alive. Light shimmered in her eyes as she unscrolled a note on her lap—this was the closest I could ever get to her. 

Chewing on every word carefully before spitting them out, Lin pieced her first sentence with meticulous precision: “After reading my book, many would conclude that this is a story about how a girl was exploited and raped. But that’s not entirely accurate. This story is about how a girl fell in love with her abuser.”

However, Lin had no intention to delve into sexual exploitation or rape. Instead, she gave the audience a literature review of her book. While the majority of her peers wandered into literature studies with anything but heartfelt passion, she enrolled because she was obsessed with it. “In high school, I was crazy about Eileen Chang’s work,” she said. “I could recite the whole set, from the very first word to the last, exactly as they are. My fixation scared me so much that I put Chang’s books away and started reading a bunch of translated literature to dilute her voice in my head.” 

After Lin was diagnosed with depression, she spent most of her time at home. During this time, she read hundreds of books that ranged from Tender Is The Night to A Personal Matter. At one point, her obsession for literature inadvertently blossomed into an admiration for writers. Enticed by their pen and talent, Lin trusted the masters behind those exquisite literary miracles to be equally astonishing in character. As a romantic, Lin fell the hardest when reality betrayed the trust she endowed in literary aesthetic and humanity. “For me, the most painful thing to watch in Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise is how easily Li, as a person who knew literature, exploited its aesthetic power and defied its legacy. He spoke love in so many ways, each of which mesmerizing, but he never meant any of them,” said Lin during the interview.

***

After his two-week silence in this scorching controversy, Chen finally launched a statement. In the belated letter, he painted a picture of himself that the public did not recognize. 

Dear friends, 

My name is Kuo-Xing Chen, not Kuo-Hua Li. I want to apologize to my family and everyone who has been following this incident. … With regard to Mr. and Mrs. Lin’s loss and grievance, I declined to come forward in the first place. However, as the situation grew out of control, I had to make my statement:

First of all, I did not go off the grid or attempt escape. I did not, as rumored, spend the time of my silence destroying evidence. I have been in Taipei the whole time, trying to cope with the gravity of public rumors. …

Second, I first met Ms. Lin when she became my student in February 2009. Our interaction was limited to class time. It wasn’t until August 2009—when she became a rising college freshman—that we engaged in a two-month relationship. During the affair, we were no longer faculty-student bound. Mr. and Mrs. Lin broke up the relationship upon notice. And my wife’s forgiveness marked the end of this affair. 

Third, as indicated in her interview, Ms. Lin had suffered from severe depression since the age of sixteen, the time in which we didn’t even know each other. …

Fourth, during her book primier conference, Ms. Lin clearly stated that she was not the main character in the book, disappointing everyone. […]

Chen expressed overt willingness to cooperate with the prosecution as this incident evolved from gossip to a criminal investigation. After pulling out communication records between involved parties and deciphering Lin’s encrypted online journal, the prosecution studied Lin’s past work while interrogating associated witnesses. Based off the evidence they managed to collect, the prosecution drew a conclusion that threw Taiwan into the height of inflammatory hysteria: Kuo-Xing Chen was acquitted from every charge. 

He walked free because the cram school record and witnesses indicated that Lin was over sixteen—the age to give legitimate consent—the first time they met. He walked free because two of Lin’s best friends testified that Lin had happily introduced Chen as her boyfriend on three separate occasions and had never mentioned being raped. He walked free because Lin had withdrawn from cram school in June and they had started texting the moment she ceased to be his student. He walked free because Lin was eighteen the first time they had sex on August 11, 2009. He walked free because hospital records showed that Lin had attempted her first suicide after her parents broke up. And even though Lin brought up “rape” and “being coerced” in her therapy session, he walked free because Lin also called this episode “a love affair.” The official verdict was a document that disassociated this case into a bundle of facts devoid of any emotion. At the end, it plainly recited, “Apart from the informer’s subjective speculation, there is a lack of conclusive evidence to establish that the accused was guilty of charge.” 

Chen did not walk away because the evidence wasn’t enough to prove him guilty in the realm of law: He walked free because he knew that modern justice left a grey area for those it failed to prove innocent. Rape is too narrowly defined by Taiwanese law; a man is labeled a rapist only if he violates a woman’s body against her will, but the authority couldn’t lay a finger on the man who played on a girl’s feelings just to get into her pants. Instead of leaving the case in an innocent man’s suit or a criminal’s jumper, Chen walked away as one who failed to qualify as either.

***

This case had haunted me for months since I shut Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise in a cold sweat. Twenty pages into the story and the pain within was already tearing me apart. Lin’s words, infiltrating the defensive rationale and suspicion I had as a reader, destroyed the barrier of mental energy I was willing to invest in reading someone else’s story. Her pen peeled off my skin and shoved me into the sea of intimate horror. I do not doubt that this story originated, at least in part, from her personal experience. 

The interviews with Lin’s best friend and publisher confirmed my dreadful intuition. On February 26th, 2016, Lin’s best friend, May, received the first draft of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. May recounted, “It was a 10,000-word manuscript. Yi-Han said she found her voice in writing and decided to start working on the piece she had been constructing for the past seven years.” Every week, Lin would send May another 10,000 words. May was Lin’s first audience and editor. “My reaction to the story was probably similar to the majority of others. It was an extremely uncomfortable reading experience and I was beyond disturbed by the pain packed within Yi-Han’s words. But at the same time, I felt strangely satisfied,” May continued. “As her friend, I was most worried about her mental state. She must have been suffering in conscious pain when she poured herself out on the paper. The way she wrote, she was self-inflicting at the same time.”

***

You couldn’t pull yourself to watch the nauseating details of rape in real life, but you are able to keep reading it in my book. Why? Because the pain satisfies the worst of your curiosity. It hurts, but at the same time, it brings you contentment. You know you shouldn’t watch, but you did it anyway.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Guerrilla Publishing was the least attractive among all the publishing companies that contacted Lin. They had a specific taste for topics excluded from the mainstream and were chronically understaffed. Even though many of their past publications received awards, Guerrilla Publishing remained a meaningless name to the majority of Taiwanese people. After the initial introduction to the manuscript, the head of Guerrilla Publishing, Pei-Yu Guo, declined to publish Lin’s book. “As a reader, I was impressed by her script. But as an editor and a publisher, I was afraid that I would cause Lin more harm when giving her feedback. My life experience was limited; I did not find it in myself the confidence to navigate what the characters in the book were experiencing.” 

An unofficial, part-time member of Guerrilla Publishing at that time, Nini Chang, was the only one who thought that it was a mistake to turn Lin down. Chang had never worked as an editor, but she had a strong feeling about Lin’s story. “I cried for two days when I looked up Yi-Han’s blog and read what’s on it. I was shocked to find out that her perspective on this world matched mine almost perfectly. It was as if she spoke for me. Our experience doesn’t necessarily overlap—I had never been that severely traumatized, nor had I actually been hospitalized—but I could take in the emotions in her story. And if I can, I want to protect her, or be her company in sailing through all this.”

At first, Lin was reluctant to review Chang’s offer from Guerrilla Publishing due to its trivial size and peculiar interest. But after several meetings, they agreed on a preliminary contract. Before entrusting her work to Guerrilla Publishing, Lin approached Chang with one lingering question. “If the press makes a fuss out of my work, would you, on behalf of Guerrilla Publishing, side with me?” The team promised to do so. A few months later, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise was printed and finely wrapped for sale. 

Prior to launching the first edition of their hard work, Lin and her publishing team sat down to map out a story for any press complications, such as: what if the media draws a parallel between the story and Lin’s private life? In the interview with Lin’s editors, Guo recounted that Lin did not mind people knowing that the book derived from her personal experience. In fact, saying this out loud would be relieving for her. Lin’s only concern lay with her family. After a futile attempt to deter Lin from publishing Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise, Lin’s parents insisted against any confession to the press. Lin compromised. Guo said, “[Lin] was afraid that, once we went public about what happened to her, the consequent societal perception would cause her family more harm, so we had a consensus to tell everyone that the book was based on a friend’s experience.” People had their suspicions, but the story managed to contain public speculation until Lin’s suicide ignited the chaotic outbreak. 

Chang’s phone rang nonstop the morning Lin died. On the phone, Mr. Lin asked Chang to publish a statement on behalf of Guerrilla Publishing. “After an emergency meeting in the morning, we decided to issue an official statement through the company site. When Lin’s family, the people that she cared about the most, had asked for a voice, we wanted to help deliver a clear message and consolidate its credibility among rumors and aimless speculation,” Guo explained. But the weight of Lin’s life unsettled the team. In the days that followed, members of Guerrilla Publishing struggled in doubt as they interrogated themselves repeatedly: Have we kept our promise to side with her or did we do something wrong? 

They never knew the answers to those questions the same way I never found the answer to mine: How did things go so wrong so fast? 

***

Kuo-Xing Chen might not be made guilty by law, but public moral trial hung him relentlessly. He was reckless at best, cunningly corrupted at worst. And many, like me, found our moral compasses bent toward the abominable end of that spectrum. From the cell phone record, the prosecution uncovered that Chen had started texting Lin four days before she withdrew from cram school, four days before the legal boundary of faculty and student expired. Lin replied to his text two weeks later and they communicated extensively in the following months until the relationship halted. This suspicious timeline, coupled with other narratives entangled in the case, was more than enough to dismiss the convenient claim of coincidence. Instead of clumsy recklessness, Chen’s demeanor warranted questionable intention. 

***

The Kuo-Hua Li in my life is still alive and he won’t die anytime soon. I still walk on the street and see his name up on the billboards. There would always be another victim and the same thing keeps happening to those girls.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Chen might be the most conspicuous figure that drove Lin to take her own life, but he was not alone. When Lin’s parents talked about their daughter, the one thing they neglected to mention was how they may have contributed to this tragedy. Lin’s family had long indulged in the glorious privilege of being part of the high-class elite society: Mr. Lin was a doctor famous for his extraordinary accomplishments in medicine, and Lin was the beautiful daughter whose precocious talent made the front page before she graduated from high school. They were “the perfect family” in Taiwanese society, but wearing their pride came with great cost. According to Lin’s editors and close friend, Lin’s parents did not report the case when they discovered that an authoritative male was taking advantage of their daughter in a romantic relationship. Upon discovery, the Lins confronted the accused and his wife at a deluxe booth in Sheraton Grande Taipei Hotel. After Lin’s parents went into a lopsided verbal rampage for an hour, Chen’s wife threatened to sue Lin for adultery and exclaimed, “If I go to court and make the whole thing public, Lin is the one who would to pay the ultimate price.” 

In the days that followed, Lin’s parents kept their silence. They did not report the case after Lin calmed down from the rush of love and realized that she had been exploited. They did not report the case when Lin wanted to seek justice for the assault. And they held Lin back when she demanded to tell her story. 

I think that the pressure to maintain the glowing façade of perfect family denied Lin’s need for a voice and forced her to bury her feelings internally. I think that Lin’s parents rejected any means to publicize the incident at the expense of their daughter’s well-being because they were petrified of marring the family name. I think that Lin’s parents attributed the encounter to Chen’s corrupted character as much as to Lin’s senselessness. I think that, while Lin’s parents knew that their daughter was the victim, they still couldn’t help but render what happened as a disgrace. I think that Lin knew how the value of honor, face and feminine chastity fostered the culture of victim-blaming. And I think that she knew exactly where she stood: a victim who needed to convince everyone that she was a victim.

***

While she was packing for college, Si-Qi opened her mouth and let her words flow out with artificial innocence, “I heard that a student in my school got together with one of the teachers.

Who is it?” Her mom asked. 

I don’t know.’

‘Never too young to be a slut.’

Si-Qi sank into silence. At that moment, she decided that she was going to stay silent for the rest of her life.”

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

***

A society that follows the conservative norm of gender roles and power dynamics inevitably buries victims of sexual assault. And the education that repels sex creates more victims. In elementary school, Taiwanese children began to realize that boys and girls have different reproductive organs. We were curious about the differences in our anatomy, but teachers at school were only willing to talk about numbers, Chinese characters, and English alphabets. In junior high school, we were introduced to the biological mechanism of reproduction through science courses, but that was far from enough to satisfy our blooming curiosity. We started to sneak readings and materials that would appall our parents and consulted them for sexual knowledge covertly. In high school, sex education could be summarized in one sentence: Do not have sex. The teacher would stand on the podium for the entire afternoon showing us cases of STDs, accidental pregnancy, and a million reasons not to trust any means of protection, but never once did they talk about sexual assault or the meaning of consent. Never once did anyone teach us how to protect ourselves. Taiwanese education is essentially sexphobic. It taught us reproduction, but we had to self-teach ourselves everything about sex. It painted sex with the color of embarrassment and hurdled many into the unbroken silence that emanated not subtlety, but negligence. This broken system produced 30,000 teenagers the year Lin graduated from high school, all of whom grew up to become potential victims or perpetrators. 

***

At the table, Si-Qi spoke in a way like she was putting butter on bread. “We seem to have everything in our family except sex education.

Her mom stared at her in dismay, “What sex education? Sex education is for people who need sex. Isn’t that how education works?

Si-Qi understood then, that her parents were forever absent in this story. They skipped class, yet they thought school hadn’t even started yet.

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

***

Lin spent the last chapter of her life putting her story into Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. She hoped that her audience could read with her—which many of us did—but we didn’t necessarily take away the message intended for us. “I have no intention or hope for this book to change the world in any way. In fact, I don’t even want to connect with the big words or societal structures,” said Lin. Instead of tracing the broader stroke of a long-term system, Lin wanted us to remember every girl that shared Si-Qi’s story. “It scares me when the ‘smart, progressive, and politically correct’ people talk about structures. They are ambitious, but they are also conveniently oblivious. The structure is determined by thousands of cases, each one with a victim just like Si-Qi. Those are humans, not numbers.” 

Categories
Voices

향수병

by Charlotte Price | Voices | Spring 2018

Image courtesy of the author

From A Far
What nationality
Or what kindred and relation 
what blood relation
what blood ties of blood
what ancestry
what race generation
what house clan tribe stock strain
what lineage extraction
what breed sect gender denomination cause 
what stray ejection misplaced
Tertium Quid neither one thing nor the other
Tombe de nues de naturalized
What transplant to dispel upon

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, from Dictee

There have been 200,000 South Koreans adopted abroad since the end of the Korean War in 1953. 

One of those was you, my mom, shot across the ocean (in a plane?) accompanied by some random woman, headed into the arms of an equally unfamiliar woman. Did she hold you on the flight, were you afraid, were you lonely? Did you cry? 

To think of this is too strange. I imagine instead that you came in a small dinghy or floating basket covered with blankets, like Moses in my Bible coloring book. Maybe you walked here across the ocean, fully grown and fully clothed, emerged onto the shore of this country, your hair tangled with seaweed and robes dripping with salt water. 

The Korean War marked the beginning of Korean adoption in the U.S. as 1,000 “mixed blood orphans” that had been fathered by American army men and Korean women faced racial stigmatization and isolation from Koreans that valued racial homogeneity. It seems important to mention here the undeniable connection between war, specifically violent U.S. interventions abroad, and increased foreign adoptions between the two countries. There are hidden yet undeniable histories of violence behind adoptions; not only war, but histories of children being forcibly, coercively removed from mothers, histories of cultural death, of racial isolation. 

The tidal oscillation of your Korean left us swimming in the aftermath of your push and pull. One morning we would wake to the smell of japchae and find pieces of paper scribbled with tiny Korean characters tucked into our notebooks. The whole family would parade dressed in traditional silken Hanboks, still stiff and creased from boxes. During one of these cultural outbursts you sent me to Korean Immersion camp in Minnesota. During another you went to Korea for nine months, leaving me and my brother Owen to subsist on microwaved Indian food that dad made. Our house still holds artifacts of these inundations: a box of Hanboks, folded and packed away, bowls of stale sweet potato noodles, Korean picture books tucked among English ones. 

Sometimes when I come home from school break and we are the only two in the house, I will curl in bed next to you and cry and cry as you tell me these stories. This is me trying to catch and hold this strange family history; the story of how we came to be. 

Post-WWII, thousands of children were sent from Japan to the U.S. Post-Vietnam war, many refugee children were sent to white American homes. As U.S.-sanctioned state violence rose in the Central American countries of Guatemala and El Salvador, orphaned children, usually from indigenous families, were brought to the U.S. Not to mention histories of violence and coercion within the United States with the infamous efforts of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the fifties to put displaced Native American children in homes of white families as a mode of cultural destruction. 

In high school my orchestra-stand partner was a fierce, trenchcoat-wearing lesbian adopted from China. We lost all our music and never practiced, so we fake-played from the back of the second violins. I think we considered ourselves fraudulent Asians. There was a certain shame disguised in our humor as we doodled boobs on our music instead of listening. From her, I learned the words Twinkie and whitewashed, I used them to explain myself. The Twinkie™ and all its creamy, cakey, golden goodness needs no introduction. Twinkie—yellow on the outside, white on the inside, an Asian person that acts so white it warrants an explanation. 

Image by Rachel Weinstein

Long after the war had ended, Korean adoption continued. The infrastructure put in place to expand post-war democratic relations between South Korea and receiving countries is called by some an economic market specializing in the “export of babies.” 

This seems strange, feels strange to write. Adoption is political, it is economic. It is also extremely personal. Let’s not forget these are people we are talking about—they are too easily abstracted into figures, abstracted into historical moments. This is me, lying next to you in your bed, wiping my snot on the pillow, trying to make sense of these incongruous histories. 

There have been more than 200,000 South Koreans adopted abroad since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

***

You left for nine months, and came back with a suitcase full of stone bowls,
You told me later about how you did strange things while you were there,
You rode the subways for hours, talking to no one.
You said that they looked at you funny, how funny to see someone that looked like them, 
                But when you spoke it was all wrong, they asked what was wrong with you 
                You said you were adopted.

In her paper “The Origins of Korean Adoption: Cold War Geopolitics and Intimate Diplomacy,” Elena Kim marks the travel through space of an adoptee’s return to their country of birth as a “journey back through time, a temporalization of space,” postulating that “Traveling such a temporal path entails multi-directional movements, not simply from present to past or future, but sometimes from one present to another.” You—a multidimensional time traveler—I imagine you swinging somewhere between here and there, caught in the space-time continuum, between the past that was and that present that could have been. The plane that you came here on suspended somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. In one possible future, I was never born. We talk over Skype in our living room across the many hour time difference an ocean away. You are blurry, your movements lag. 

I wrote you to ask you about this; to ask you about many things that I have never fully known. You responded by Word document sent through email. 

I had this feeling that if I could just become Korean enough to“pass” as a real Korean, I could go back, be accepted back, or at least feel that I was choosing to leave Korea on my own terms. It was not something I was even aware of, but deep down, I felt anger, deep shame and sadness, which made my relationship to the country and to my Korean friends very complicated. Studying the language was difficult, if not impossible. I could never get any traction. I would get very good at it, then stop for so long I would have to start up again as a beginner.

When I was in Korea, I felt like someone else. I was a nomad. I refused to have a cell phone. I took no pictures. I kept to myself. I would leave odd little care packages around, with clothing and other essential items wrapped in bags. On doorsteps. Near park benches. At bus stops. No idea why. I felt homeless. Or I was caring for the homeless. It felt like a communication to the entire country. 

***

The area in Maine where you grew up was almost completely white, besides you and Mina, your adopted sister. This superimposed white identity has become part of our personal history. This whiteness created by an erasure created me, created a void every time I try and trace back the lines of my descent in my head and instead just hit the wall of my skull. Every time I am racialized.

Being adopted, I think I imprinted on my white family from birth. In elementary school, I could not honestly tell I was Asian when I looked in the mirror. In fourth grade, I remember riding home on the bus, looking at my school picture all the way home, wondering how people could tell I was Asian. 

In “Adoptees as ‘White’ Koreans: Identity, Racial Visibility and the Politics of Passing Among Korean American Adoptees,” Kim Park Nelson traces location and dislocation of whiteness in Korean adoptees. Complex racializations of Asian Americans in the U.S. at that time meant that Korean adoptees were racialized as white by adoptive families. This familial unification over the claiming of white American culture as a “single culture and national identity” meant assimilation at the cost of erasure of ethnic difference. 

I don’t know if they took away your names when they adopted you
           Or if someone just forgot to tell them
           You were called Jenny, your sister Sarah.
           Bearing the names of the white folks in Maine as masks.
           They made you search for those names
           with them you found your lines of kinship, or lack of.
           Now you Sun-mi, and she Mina
           A reclamation? A return?

It is not until grad school, age thirty, when I first learned to write my name in Korean. A Korean friend’s mother taught me how to write “Sun-mi.” I was like a kindergartener, my letters all big and shaky. 

***

One of Huffington Post’s explanations for why so many people are adopted from Korea is because of a jus sanguinis (“right of blood”) clause within laws of Korean citizenship, stating that automatic citizenship is obtained only if you are recognized as the child of a Korean national father. This clause was complicated by the fact that pre-1998, abandoned or stateless children found within the Korean territory were automatically naturalized, perhaps explaining why 80-90% of children born to single mothers in Korea were abandoned. Though this clause was dismembered in 1998, allowing for children born to Korean mothers to also become citizens, the shame and stigma of being a single parent remains. This shame tied to the blood laws and blood lines, a blood-oriented culture that I cannot fully understand, is countered by the shame of Korea as a developed country whose children are abandoned and that sends so many children to families overseas. 

My brother and I are your only blood relatives, your only Korean relatives. 

I don’t know your adopted parents’ names. Somehow it just never came up. All I know is that your mom was outrageous and loved animals. You told us once about the time she gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a bird. They rescued horses, nearly dead, skin and bone, patchy balding horses that they would haul in their VW bus with the seats put down: Floyd, Mustard, and Gentle Ben, Black Beauty, all ferocious and damaged. Sometimes I wonder what they were thinking, your parents, when they adopted a child from Korea and one from the Dakota Sioux Tribe, in addition to their two white white white biological sons. You said your mom adopted you because she wanted girls, girly girls, real girls. Instead they ended up with you, an unruly tomboy who refused to wear pantyhose. 

Image by Rachel Weinstein

Though your adopted parents died before I was born, the material goods that they passed on still reside in our house—an antique wooden table, a cast iron sewing machine, a technicolored orange afghan. But these remnant possessions are not sufficient to reconstitute an extended family. When I think of your side of the family, I think instead of the Korean families in Amherst that you befriended. We would visit their houses that smelled funny and felt warm. We ate japchae in the living room of their blue apartment building, we ate japchae in the basement of the Korean church; me and my brother holding the crinkly cellophane fish that we had made as a Sunday school activity in our sticky hands—japchae—I remember disliking the rubbery clear noodles. They were too false, too plastic. 

It wasn’t until recently that I learned the importance of food, of Korean food. The AsZian Fuzzzion food that you would make: lo mein noodles in hard taco shells, a side of Annie’s mac and cheese—white culture meets diasporic longing. I scoured the internet for food recipes that you refused to teach me, or didn’t know how: 

mykoreankitchen.com
bonappetit.com
budgetbytes.com
aspicyperspective.com
tasteofhome.com
Taste of home? 

I filled in the gaps of information that you can’t learn online; I asked my white friends who were “into fermenting” how to brine the kimchi. They taught me how to push the cabbage leaves under the salty water with a bowl, so they don’t get moldy. After weeks my kimchi tasted like the sour of defeat, and anger at the things you were never able to teach me. Do I succeed in fooling them? I wonder. ARE YOU FOOLED? The only mark of authenticity is my twinkie yellow outer shell that I hide behind. But I learned these recipes from the internet, I want to scream. No I do not know how they are supposed to taste, no they do not remind me of home.

Regardless, it feels vastly important that I create this food. All of my racialized insecurities, all of the ways that I perceive myself as false, or vastly not enough melt away as I stand in the co-op kitchen surrounded by all of the Koreans I have met here. I cannot express in words how deeply whole it feels to be sitting in the basement covered in bits of messy bibimbap, and too sour kimchi, and internet recipe amalgamated inventions, surrounded by all of you, quietly slurping tofu stew that tastes of home, real or imagined. We exhale collectively, out of our mouths come small soft clouds of fire. 

At the end of your response to a list of questions I sent you about this piece, you wrote me this, titled Charlotte and Owen

If I strip away all the “cultural markers” or checklists that I have created—fluent in the Korean language, able to make kimchi, and everything else that I once thought necessary to do in order to “be Korean”—I am left thinking about, well, you… 

Perhaps there are many paths when it comes to identity. I am learning this from you. Recently, I learned that making kimchi by your side, with you leading the way, humming and so carefree about “everything kimchi,” made me feel so happy and whole. 

be more fluid, more forgiving than I could have ever imagined. Did I need to live through all these stories to arrive at this place? Perhaps this interview is an unexpected gift, a roadmap for anyone on a quest, with a few lovely shortcuts along the way. May anyone following along feel invited simply to start where we left off, chopping cabbage, humming, and feeling free. 

Categories
Voices

A (Sexy) Time

by S. Fishman | Voices | Spring 2018

Prints by Bridget Conway

It’s cold for summer and genuinely an awful date when we sit on benches by the river on the Upper East Side drinking the beer I’ve bought for us. S is talking about moving to Oregon or somewhere. At this moment, I’m a 75-year-old butch in a blue mini-dress with tits flying amok and bouts of glitter rubbed carelessly just below the corners of my eyes. It’s in the third beer that I’m thinking we’re definitely going to smooch, and it’s about time because a true old butch—even an eighteen-year-old in femme drag—should have kissed a lesbo by now. We’re back at her place, more beer appears, and I lean my head against the bed frame. 

Apparently it’s sexy time when S turns the lights off and wordlessly slips her knee between my thighs. We start smooching, and as her teeth knock clumsily around my mouth, a familiar feeling seeps in. As it becomes clear that I’m on the cusp of full dissociation, logic and reason tell me it’s time to fuck: To my understanding, that is the duty which comes with a performance as the good butch. At this time, my definition of good butch is essentially, an emotionless dude who’s a dutiful top in the sack. So I’m fucking S, and after hearing what is presumably an orgasm, she’s going down on me, and at this point I’m essentially watching this happen from across the room. Then, it’s a quick reassurance—that’s okay, I’m good—from the depths of my inner stone butch, and a brief bout of spooning before I’m using my phone flashlight to track down my strappy sandals. In my haste, I forget my underwear buried among piles of crap on the floor, and bawling into the phone to a friend of mine on my way home, I’m undoubtedly feeling the breeze. 

Up until this point my past experiences in the realm of sexy time solely included porny performances as a balls-grabbing hot girl. During these episodes in my late teenage life, sex meant asserting power in order to derive some kind of entertainment from an otherwise dissociative penis-focused affair. Crucial to these experiences was an utter physical and mental indifference, which, whilst fucking men throughout many grand years of repression, I attributed completely to an unwillingness to accept my queerness. A date with S meant getting rid of that baggage all at once, becoming the queer I was always meant to be after one quick fuck. I essentially repurposed all the tools and forms of intimacy learned from dudes I’d fucked to create a queer sexual identity. 

My attempt at dating à la the horny teenage boy I may one day become culminated in a panic: a panic over fucking. I use the term “horny teenage boy” lightly, but what I mean to describe is a hormone-ridden seventeen-year-old eager to get his dick wet. The trope itself is a product of compulsory sexuality, the idea that all humans are inclined to fuck and perform a sexual identity of desire. The point is, if I was going to fuck, it wasn’t going to be as simple and sexy as I’d hoped after coming to terms with my dyke-dom. Hence, a panic over fucking. Countless interactions with others have confirmed time and again that sexuality and gender identity which diverts from the absolute norm is a cause for panic. Even while you’re not fucking and not worried about it, someone else is undoubtedly worrying about it for you. 

I’m not currently a horny teenage boy, nor is this a problem to be dealt with. Many people understand asexuality to mean a lack of desire, a total aversion to any form of sexy time, and although this may be true for some, asexualities are pluralistic, ranging from total horndog to sex- and romance-averse. My identification as not a horny teenage boy may be where I place myself on this spectrum, though an asexual-identifying person is by no means necessarily not fucking. This kind of label is useful to a good old boy like me and, had I been introduced to it earlier, could’ve been useful to the aforementioned baby dyke crying commando on a long cab ride home. Asexuality provided the vocabulary for the spectrum of who’s fucking, who’s not fucking, and who that’s important to. Having only heard of sexless relationships needing to be “spiced up” and of the narrative of sexual repression assigned to closeted queers, the idea of not fucking, and still having feelings of love or intimacy, never occurred to me. However, as my mother once generously reminded me, her freaky genderqueer child, in a conversation about my sexual life, it’s very possible to “make myself come with someone else!” My Republican mother’s willingness to imagine slightly nonnormative intimacies can set an example for us all. 

A friend of mine, N, is a sweater-wearing English major at a fratty university who goes on a date with a dude for the first time. Sitting in the booth of an Ann Arbor diner, they’re talking about the op-ed N is writing, his date listening intently. Suddenly, he looks at this dude over a plate of eggs over-easy and imagines them fucking. The heat rises, the sweaters come off, the masculinity simply oozes out in beads of sweat. N tells me that this is a pivotal moment for him. He can imagine them fucking without any feelings of disgust or shame. For him, an envisioned fuck legitimizes his queerness, makes it tangible, even easy. This fuck signifies that he’s a big queer, and he’s going to bang a hot dude into the sunset. His existing baggage around intimacy—which we all have a fair dose of—would simply disappear after a good orgasm. In a cloudy flashback, I see my baby femme self, chock-full of dissociative sexual experiences with cis men, diving blindly into S’s bed on 86th and Lexington Ave. He tells me this story and I think, good job, you’ve shed one small layer of shame. Because being able to fantasize about embracing queerness is a great thing. What I ask is that my dear friend not think of his queerness as reliant on a sex drive. I want him to consider his desires and whether they’re being reflected accurately onto this brunch boy. What was unfulfilling to him during his career of solely fucking women could open up possibilities for his future queer interactions. Straight relationships and interactions don’t ask for a diversion from intimacy as we tend to define it. When repression and shame are part of one’s narrative of queerness, as they so often are, it’s useful to ask basic questions about how we want to be intimate. “Do I want to fuck?” and if so, who, where, when, why, is a decent start. I’m certainly not saying there’s anything unexciting about a hunky babe with egg dripping down his face; rather, I’m wary of sex as a qualifier for queerness. 

It’s like when I tell my brother that M and I are together but not fucking. I think I use the phrase “casual emotional romance.” He responds, “isn’t that just friendship?” which is not a bad question, nor an original one. Where does one draw the line? If I spend half of my time fucking my platonic roommate and the other half maintaining an asexual romantic relationship with a partner, which of the two is my friend? Which my lover? My brother, a cis man and comedy writer—a fatal combination—approaches me with curiosity and suspicion because my romantic experience hardly resembles his. And then I understand that many of the romances I have or once had or will have may be classified as just friendships. It takes me a long time to recognize that my romance with M is a romance. That the number of smooches we share or times we get nice and naked in front of each other doesn’t define our interaction. That M not kissing me at times when in previous romances I would’ve expected it doesn’t mean that they don’t feel things for me. My expectations were tainted by interactions where sex and minor sexual cues took absolute precedence, and where my desires weren’t acknowledged, many times because I didn’t know they mattered; for me, kissing had existed as a tool for validation and security rather than a form of getting close to another person or being sexy together. This mode of being together—all the not-fucking in the world, plus all the baggage of two repressed queers, plus telling each other how crazy hot we are—could go unrecognized as a romance. And then I’m asking myself if my brother would recognize romance if he wasn’t fucking it. 

Categories
Voices

Five Meditations On The Body

by Clio Schwartz | Voices | Spring 2018

Prints by Bridget Conway

I. MY BODY AS APPARATUS 

I want to dictate the means and the end of my being. 

I have built a life-long habit of ignoring my body as a form of resistance. Trying to prove my adaptability and inner strength, I’ve spent years shoving the most basic of human needs to the back of my consciousness, suppressing physical exhaustion, hunger, and pain. Maybe it comes from a reluctance to submit to my body. Sometimes I think I need ultimate control over my existence. I don’t want to waste a moment that could be used for something more productive or exciting on something as banal as the body. And yet, here I am, trying to process and come to terms with my corporeal form. 

I’ve pushed my body to its limits—how long can I go without water? Food? Sleep? Just how much do I actually need to survive? I forget what my body needs to feel good, and I lose track of the warning signs. Confused as to why I’ve been fainting every few days, I realize that I haven’t been hydrating. 

My psychiatrist asks me if I ignore my body’s needs as a form of stoicism. “Stoicism?” I ask. “Maybe you’ve heard it portrayed as having grit,” she elaborates. Bending to the will of my body feels absurd—what does it say about me and my strength if I must give in to this form, a form explicitly for my own use? Shouldn’t I be able to force my body to submit to my intellect? Much better to bravely endure the repercussions of exerting my power over my body than to listen to its needs. 

In the same way that my body is perceived as a healthy body, although I have been carrying chronic illness around with me for upward of eight months, my body is perceived as a woman’s body, despite the fact that I feel unconnected to womanhood. My friend tells me that, after meeting me, her mother tells her: “I look at Clio and I just see a woman.” This plays in my head every time I look in the mirror for a month or so, then it’s relegated to the intrusive thoughts that show up every now and then when I’m feeling particularly anxious about my gender presentation. How do I reconcile the way people perceive me and the way I feel? This same mother is never able to get my pronouns right, and doesn’t hear her mistakes—but upon meeting a more masc-presenting friend, immediately catches on to gendering them correctly. I go home and cry. Am I not trans enough? Do I not look trans enough? 

In this nebulous area of non-binary-ness that doesn’t present androgyny in its traditional form—AFAB people dressing masculinely and embracing masculine traits—I feel lost. My friend makes a post on Instagram about people being tripped up about her gender, and my heart sinks with the realization that I would love that experience; to have someone stumble over my pronouns (“he—they? she?”), or call me sir and then wrinkle their brow and squint a little. I feel so limited in this body that is so excessively feminine. Even when I’m binding, even with my hair buzzed short, nobody ever thinks twice about their perception of me. 

The way my body looks is perceived and gendered so differently from who I am, and yet I feel no desire to change it. What is the point of rejecting womanhood if there’s no physical, perceived manifestation of said rejection? The amount to which I choose to perform my gender shifts as easily as a breeze. Some days I wish to have no body at all.

***

II. MY BODY AS SPECIMEN

In the beginning, I’m not too concerned. It’s August. Waves of numbness spread through my face and I can’t move my head without feeling so dizzy that I collapse, but this isn’t the first time. My friend drives me to urgent care and they take two vials of blood. A mono spot (negative), and a complete blood count (normal). On the off chance that I have Lyme a second time, they give me doxycycline, which my body can’t keep down. Three days later, I go to Cleveland Clinic. 

I’m apprehensive about going to the doctor—they always call me Madeline, no matter how many times I clarify, and the number of times they refer to me as a woman is exhausting. This time I am on the fence about coming out to the doctor as non-binary. Maybe they’ll write something in my file, and I’ll never have to deal with this again. 

“I’m not a woman,” I begin to explain. “So you want to be a man?” the doctor asks me after I tell her I’m non-binary.

“No, not at all! I’m not a man or a woman. I’m a third gender, non-binary. Not on the binary.” I stumble through a second explanation, already regretting the decision to come out. It sounds clumsy and I feel like a zoological attraction that she suddenly doesn’t understand, rather than someone she can relate to. 

Later, I check my file online. 

NOTE: Patient is non-binary and would like to be addressed as Ze (instead of he or she) 

HPI:
Madeline Cleo Shwartz (goes by Cleo) is a 19 year old non-binary female presenting today to establish care and address new onset intermittent dizziness and facial numbness. She recently moved from NY to Cleveland for college.

Not only did I never ask for the pronoun “ze,” the file goes on to use “she” for me throughout the entire document. Although this is the first of many doctor appointments, it is the last time I come out.

They take seven vials of blood from me. Everything comes back normal, except the Lyme, which has results that don’t make sense. Due to the Lyme results, they refer me to the Infectious Diseases specialist. I put off making an appointment for six weeks, emotionally exhausted from the last appointment and overwhelmed by the chaos of September. When I go to my mom’s for October break, I realize I am so fatigued that I can only spend an hour or two out of bed each day. I call Cleveland Clinic, but the earliest they can get me in to see the Infectious Diseases specialist is December 6. I spend the next six weeks deeply exhausted and pushing myself to live a normal life, pushing myself to the very edge of my limits. 

Throughout this whole ordeal, I feel crazy. Nothing feels normal, and yet nobody can find anything wrong with me. And fatigue is too nebulous and invisible: Everyone at Oberlin is tired all the time, and I don’t know if I’m being overdramatic or if this is real. Doctors—including my psychiatrist—keep asking me if my fatigue is depression-related (maybe because I’m trans?) but I know what that feels like and I’m mentally stable. I need there to be something wrong with me, some diagnosis, so I can get some closure with this illness.

On December 6th, they take thirteen vials of blood. I am finally diagnosed with mono, with evidence of past Lyme. I push through finals, with one emergency incomplete. I feel defeated, helpless, and alone in my exhaustion. I see another doctor in New York after I spend two weeks bedridden with no signs of improvement. She takes another seven vials of blood from me. After twenty-nine vials of blood, four doctors, and five months, I am finally told that I have healed from three types of mono, all of which I had at the same time throughout fall semester, without knowing. Now I have post-viral fatigue, an unexplained affliction that can last months, or years. 

Twenty-nine vials of blood, four doctors—it felt like a lot while it was happening, but it isn’t until February that the quantity really hits me, with the arrival of a steep medical bill my insurance won’t cover. In addition to other medical debt my family had been struck with in the fall semester, this feels like a slap in the face. Impostor syndrome comes rushing back. Did I really need all that testing? I could have just endured, evoking the stoicism I had internalized for years prior to this extended illness? And with no way to quantify my fatigue or the degree to which I have healed, it is hard not to feel self-indulgent and, in some ways, useless as I attempt to scale back my commitments and workload. 

***

III. MY BODY AS INCANTATION AND RITUAL

At the end of December I move into my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. It has a skylight, and I can keep it just as clean as I like because for a blissful month, I will be alone. After spending several weeks practically bedridden at my mother’s home, I sacrifice her care in exchange for the independence and agency solo living will allow me. And with this newfound independence I find the space and time to learn my body. After spending months detachedly ignoring my illness, I suddenly am allowed to lean into it. I mourn the loss of my ignorant trust in my body, and I mourn the time lost putting my life on hold. 

But I find the edges of my form stretching, filling this body up; imagining shapes and pouring my body into them. I spend more time naked and I take long, hot baths, moisturizing afterwards. Treating my body tenderly allows for a new burgeoning of love where before there had been only a distaste. When I can stand for long enough, I cook complete, beautiful meals. I drink liters and liters of water, as constant as breathing.

And most of all, I sleep. Fitfully at first—hyper-realistic nightmares flood my subconscious and shake me awake, cold and sweaty. I reach for the glass of water by my bed and blearily knock it all over my nightstand, soaking my journal. And then, after a time, more peacefully. Dreamless sleep.

Awakening from this dreamless sleep feels like stepping onto a new planet. I move slowly and cautiously, hyper-aware of my breathing and balance, holding onto the wall and chairs as my body adjusts. When I take risks and push myself to walk unsupported, I faint and have to rebuild my confidence. Falling again and again is humbling—a necessary reminder of how fragile I am.

In January, I have just enough energy to take on one activity a day. Most days this is something like lunch with a friend; sometimes it’s more ambitious, like a paper-making workshop. And yet somehow I no longer feel useless and alone, as I did throughout December. I am learning a lot. I know how to feel when I am hungry, or dehydrated, or physically exhausted, in ways that hadn’t yet become intuitive for me before this illness. This body that had been background noise for so long, almost two decades, reveals itself to me as rich with so much more than pure utility. 

It is hard to internalize the idea that my fingertip is just as much me as my mind. This merging of self, or extension of self from intellectual to physical, starts to take place as I begin to dance alone in my living room. Soon it becomes compulsive: a daily ritual. I dance until I can’t breathe, which at first is a laughably short period of time but it grows longer. Being able to express an emotion or thought by moving my body in a certain way allows me to recenter my sense of self in the body. Rather than journaling, I move viscerally, bypassing intellectual processing. My fingertips become as saturated with emotion as my mind, as the rest of me. I drip heavy with emotion.

***

IV. MY BODY AS PERFORMANCE

The growing understanding of my body’s physical limitations coincides with a renewed interest in my gender identity and expression. I cut my hair again, despite knowing that my body is unequivocally perceived as that of a woman. A physical rejection of femininity feels impossible to me, and I make very little effort to counter that, perhaps because I know that no matter what lengths I go to there is no chance that people will see me otherwise. My mother likes to remind me that I am on the cutting edge of social development; that I should be patient with the general public. Patience is hard to summon. Despite my frustration with the inability of most to see me as non-binary, my gender doesn’t seem as tied to my physical presentation as others would expect. And then what is gender? Is it the way I am talked about? Is it relevant to the people I kiss and the kinds of relationships I engage in? I am comforted by the theory that all gender is performative, but it is hard to break from the societal narrative that informs me that mine is especially so. 

In the same way that passing as healthy in a society that stigmatizes the chronically ill is a privilege, I recognize that passing as cis allows me a lot of ease in the way I navigate a transphobic world. It can be difficult to weigh the pain of pretending to be what I am not against the pain of the bigotry directed at who I am. “I look at Clio and all I see is a woman.” These are the moments that I mistrust my own sense of my gender. What if this is a phase after all? What if I am really a girl? The cisheteropatriarchy is extremely talented at seeding that kind of self-doubt. I value my femininity and the empathy and tenderness that has been nurtured in me, but I don’t know how much of this is truly who I am and how much of it was taught into me. I don’t know how to delineate between true identity and a reaction to my environment. And is there even a delineation? It is impossible to remove myself from my environment, so perhaps my true identity is only a reaction to my environment. I struggle to feel my gender throughout my body despite having learned, over the course of January, to channel my sense of emotional self throughout my physical self. Perhaps I had been dealing with my gender identity through the same lens of stoicism I had used to understand my body. This chasm between body and gender is a fundamental disconnect that feels insurmountable. I try anyway. 

***

V. MY BODY AS MIRROR

This is what I grapple with as I heal, so slowly it is nearly imperceptible, or rather only perceptible over the course of several months. There are no day-to-day little successes. The healing is not an uphill battle—it is a slog. It is like finally turning a corner and crashing into a glass wall, finding myself thrown backwards, bruised. Trying to figure out my relationship to gender surprises me in how accurately it parallels this. I find one way to think about my presentation, or the way I’m perceived, or my relationships to others, and as soon as I turn that corner and hit that wall, I am thrown back into chaos. I had imagined that I’d move linearly from confusion to an innate understanding of my gender identity, but the more I come to terms with the limitations of my body and my being, the more unclear I become. 

My gender is invisible and yet integral to my identity and experience of this world; simultaneously, my illness creates limitations for me that can’t be seen by the untrained eye. I am reluctant to let this chronic illness define my identity and so I downplay it—but it feels so much a part of me that the fact that it can’t be seen sometimes feels like an injustice to its significance in my life. 

One function of the mirror is to establish a relation between the human and its reality. In the same way, I see my gendered reality reflected back at me in my chronic illness. Because of the peace I must make with my body throughout this chronic illness, I am able to establish a more concrete understanding of the way my gender affects my interactions with the world. Seeing this mirrored reflection of my struggle with gender identity has shocked me. I never expected to find understanding of either in the other, and yet coming to terms with the limitations of my body in both respects takes a similar kind of emotional work. I am in no way resolved about either experience; rather, I am actively working to sort through them in tandem. 

At the beginning of September, I start to grow my hair out. I wake up in April and am consumed by the urge to shave it all off. Dead weight is suddenly gone and I feel reborn. For the period of time that I adjust to my buzzed head, I have no way of grounding myself in reality. I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself. It is immensely comforting. 

Categories
Cultural Miasma

Angel of the Home Computer

by Julianne Hussman | Cultural Miasma | Spring 2018

Image by Leah Yassky

4:01 PM on a Saturday and a music application plays “Everytime” by Britney Spears. “Why carry on without me?” I mouth weakly in my bed, “Every time I try to fly I fall.” My cat meows in the hallway. I open Instagram, the online theatre of reputation. I evaluate my power quantified through big data. I compare, self-objectify. I closely examine myself through the eyes of the imaginary ultimate Spectator, whose judging eye is an abusive assemblage of internalized gender, class, and capitalist cosmetic expectations. I look in the mirror. I am cute and pretty, yes? I am lovable, yes? 

Sickly white fragile beauty, will I be loved the nearer my proximity to death? Is feminine shrinkage a corpse meditation for those who gaze at her? Some Buddhist monks would watch women’s beauty decay—their attrition a reminder of impermanence, loosening the grip of desire. In the Victorian romantic vision of tuberculosis, the consumptive woman’s frailty is accompanied by a heightened, spiritualized consciousness as her guilty flesh burns up. Her appearance was and is emulated in makeup styles, corsetry, high fashion, and diet culture.

Is she a reminder that even the duplicitous power and beauty of femininity will, in fact, die, and perhaps our self-sovereign spirits may outlive the mother’s leaky body? The gendered body is associated with leakiness and penetrability, inferior to the male citizen-subject who is self-sovereign and contained. I imagine I will be rewarded for tightly regimented bodily choreographies: shrinking and contorting according to ideals of passive beauty. I seek thinness, an implanted desire. My unconscious, uninterrogated reflex is to think that my security––my “belonging,” or protection and privilege––lies there, in the amorphous endless striving where the trauma of self-neglect won’t follow me. The more I curl into and against myself, contorting into a cute commodity, the less dangerous I become, the less dangerous we become.

Approval of my body and face has come to stand in for being “seen” in my wholeness, my consciousness, emotions, experiences, and the ancestral line which flows back to beginningless time that has produced this body. I try to forget, for a moment, my digital spectacles of identity, the ways I have come to love and desire my own subjection in spite of intellectual critique. I close my eyes and begin some mirrorless, spectatorless dancing. Okay, the living body is here, still. 

My kitten continues to meow outside. Yasmin is a ragdoll cat. The breed acquired this name due to the cats’ tendency to collapse limp in the arms of children, follow closely, cuddle affectionately. Yasmin is charged with mischief energy, tiptoeing across the hangers in the closet. She follows me, chirping, into the bathroom, snuggles my face, kicks lighters under the couch (we found seven under there once), “shakes paw” for treats, sleeps on my second pillow. I read on Wikipedia that, “Some breeders in Britain have tried to breed away from the limpness owing to concerns that extreme docility ‘might not be in the best interests of the cat.’” In a neoliberal, post-industrial context, domestication can be seen as a history of producing pliable, dependent subjects—private sphere companions to make life more livable. 

Yasmin says, no I am not only an object because my dances of beauty and affection and kittenness are appeals, strategic performances––as much as any other being’s bids for love, safety, and warmth are––though some beings have been dissected and molded and refashioned by others who ingrain dependence in us so our whole existence becomes an appeal. My smallness fragility and hobbling forever-baby forever-acted-upon forever-chosen-for soft face whisker-kiss love me so much you could eat me up take me into you––relationships of love are also relationships of power.

Hello Kitty has no mouth so we can project whatever feeling we want onto her. She has no mouth, a Sanrio spokesperson once said, “so we can be happy and sad together with Hello Kitty.”

***

At ten years old, I’m a browed, queer, lonely girl, wearing my hair like a tangled, black, proto-emo veil with ill-placed bobby pins. A boy on the bus says I look like the girl from The Ring and tries to force me to show my face. I spend the majority of my time in my basement with internet friends on Neopets and designing websites for my guinea pig Marshi (Marshmallow Maro Jr.), my only friend allowed at the house. I named her after Mashimaro—a cop-hating, brilliantly perverse and vulgar South Korean cartoon rabbit introduced to me in third grade, before my mom transferred me to conservative Catholic middle school. A boy in my new class says, “You know, Julianne is obsessed with her guinea pig. And she kind of looks like one…”

I would draw my guinea pig Marshi, write her diary entries, photoshop her in dozens of settings, and give and receive pet website awards from quirky middle-aged ladies online. These digital worlds were escapes from the sadistic hierarchies of middle school, where we expelled the pus of our enculturation, trauma, shame, and insecurity onto one another in crude, early games of power and privilege. Embodying my idea of Marshi was a passage to connection with other women––ones who loved the cute, who wanted to learn how to love better, who knew how to nurture life, who lived and made kin with a particular kind of being, deriving a sense of self in relation. 

My activities with her idealized anthropomorphic character online were balanced by play, affection, care, leafy greens, and hay, but I wonder if I sometimes neglected time with Marshi for her dream image. My babysitter forgot to feed her when we went on vacation and baby’s breath grows in the spot where she’s buried. 

The trouble with living relations is the possibility of rejection and loss. The squirming of a kitten from your arms, a crying baby. A sharp shock of shame, personalization, and perhaps, a turn to the mouthless, pliable benevolence of plushies. My child-self loved who she was in relation to cute objects. They did the quiet, invisible labors of constructing my subjectivity as the one-who-loves. The one who recognizes what is lovable: I am soft-hearted, nurturer, “good female.” 

A matted block of synthetic fur became a medium to play-act these femininities. I thought American Girl dolls were too creepy to be so expensive, but I loved their doll-sized pets. I had the Westie named Coconut. Coconut had a solid but hollow body with plush white fur and black beads for eyes. I would keep drawings of her in random manila folders, make her outfits, play her online games, bring her everywhere; she turned gray, and a little piece broke off inside her and would jingle if I shook her—I called it her heart. She was a haunted and enchanted object, an idol and an outlet for private child dreams and secrets. A lonely child in a consumer culture may have a host of object love affairs. 

***

Have you ever felt the gut-punch of the news that your mother gave away a stuffed animal you haven’t seen, touched, much less thought of, in years? We become subjects by fashioning the self within networks of relations. How have I been so shaped and impressed upon by bonds with cotton and yarn manufactured in the shape of a friend? How have object intimacies become major forces in the construction of my narrativized self? In my isolation as a tween basement-dweller, I encountered the cruel relief of intimate commodities. I was endowed with both a sense of power and connection, although I lacked access to a living collective. 

Images by Leah Yassky

As the concept of a living dog compressed and abstracted into an accessory, Coconut became a symbol for my identity constitution as feminine caretaker. A purchase can be an apparatus for exploring the “self,” often a gendered self, offering a temporary cohesion of an internally regulated consumer identity. I experience the purchase as a socially-sanctioned, oft-repeated sacrament to appease capital, that feels as if it were really my idea all along. The desire to acquire is written into my ways of seeing, visually accumulating and claiming images and objects as a means of self-branding, self-understanding. Somehow, this becomes the way I experience myself as a social being. I buy back glimpses of sociality in the form of cute commodities. 

The Sanrio franchise has a character duo called Sugarbunnies. They are soft white and brown rabbit plushies named Shirousa and Kurousa. Sanrio released a video of the Sugarbunnies baking a cake for the loneliest French child pianist. She spends her day at the piano bench. In time, the girl’s productivity is shot; she’s demoralized, frustrated and uninspired by the keys in front of her. She is alone in her charming little house, no parents, no pets, two plushies. She tucks herself into bed. 

The Sugarbunnies wake in the night, “Il faut l’aider,” we must help. They work until morning to create le gâteau piano, embellished with pink roses. The little girl takes a bite, consuming their love, her worth, her inspiration, and plays smilingly. I would watch and rewatch this video and felt relieved, held, however superficially. The video’s golden-rose tint made it feel like a memory, an early impression, a nebulous imprint on my sense of self.

In a culture where she must train herself to meet productivity norms, the little girl stumbles into inertia, despair, and loneliness. The Sugarbunnies are her rescuers, revivers: They are angels of the home. They crack the eggs, ice the cake, cut the strawberries. The cute, caring agents––Shirousa and Kurousa––hold the social duty of pleasuring and reviving the worker during her retreat to the private sphere, preparing her for the exploitative arrangement that awaits the next morning. This mental, emotional, physical, self-perfecting pleasure––and affection––producing labor must never appear to be labor, but a fountain of instinct flooding from the feminine heart. The Sugarbunnies represent the mystery of making feminized domestic labor invisible and thus creating a saccharine specter of devotional magic that appears intrinsic to their being. 

The plushie is not the only intimate, pacifying commodity I live with: I’ve grown entangled with my phone and PC. I become aware of the bleeding of the lines between us, as my phone comes to be a technology of the self. I sit inert and simply listen as my cell phone calls to my restlessness. My phone marks one entry point into the corporate matrix of social data, holding the promise of visibility and acceptance, as well as a source of busyness to disconnect me from the agitated disquiet of having to be with my body for too long. The discomfort and ever-shifting sensations in my guts, the forced presence with my thoughts: fluctuating and in play—like weather. In better times I may be able to sit with them like a compassionate observer. It is not always that time.

Sometimes, I’ll start to grasp, reach for grass to pull, nails to bite, something to smoke. Often, I grab my phone for some unlimited access into some of my most unmindful impulses. (Have you ever gone into a plastic surgery Instagram hole and emerged thinking that your whole face is a pathology? Or the shape of your labia or jaw or ears or tits or dick is a disease?) 

***

Burrowing into certain digital enclaves under a spell of lonely unrest, I came across the women who mime love on a screen. The women layer a complex of hand motions and sounds that, for some viewers, trigger a sensuous and tingling warmth in the scalp, neck, and spine called ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. Developed primarily for relaxation and relief from anxiety, loneliness, and insomnia, ASMR video artists create intimate role-play simulations. Opening an ASMR video can be discomfiting, as the performer crosses personal boundaries and touches vulnerabilities; or she can appear creepy, with her unnaturally over-mediated, sterile, and truncated intimacy. To consume requires a surrender, a sinking in, a suspension of the reflex to recoil at her virtual touch: To consume her love is to naturalize the melding between myself and my hardware. 

Many of the most popular ASMRtists are thin, white or East Asian with long, silky hair, and perfectly manicured nails. (The ways in which individual women strategically navigate sexist-Orientalist viewership on YouTube, as well as the implications of this viewership are knotted and vast, and deserve an entire piece all their own). They whisper unintelligibly, tap and manipulate household objects, gently affirming and attending to the viewer. Their videos are consumed by millions of others, but this is just for me.

Once I have sunken into her curated soundscape, her performance is disarming… she punctures the film of my cynical disbelief, my technophobia, my desires for more radical tactile, embodied relations. She offers an irresistible commodity. I can find care, be warmly held with no demands placed on me. I can take a break from agency, accountability, and mutuality to be unconditionally soothed. ASMRtists are maidservants, sound-makers, relational specialists––arms of feminized intimacy, servitude, and occasionally, quietly coded or not, eroticism. She dresses me, she loves me, and there’s nothing she adores more than my relaxation. Brushed hair, facial treatments, words of love, thousands of crackling, tingling objects in hundreds of tiny silk pouches. From her I find a short, twenty minute break from my work to be consoled and revived, to have my wounds licked. 

Away from her, I am so often cut off from others, isolated and self-monitoring. To produce, achieve, and consume, there is no time for the rat’s nest messiness of interdependence… With her, I can feel a flimsy but graspable emergence of tenderness and care without the heart-draining uncertainties, losses, and pains. She lives as long as I have internet connection.

She can be your caretaker, your ideal mother, your inner child’s imaginary love, whatever you need. Look at her—do you want to fuck her or return to weightlessness in her womb? Sometimes it is hard to tell.

There is a recurring debate within the ASMR community about whether or not the videos are “sexual,” as they often include erotic vocalizations, mouth sounds, girlfriend roleplays, and other forms of sensuous, tactile, feminized labor. Many creators and viewers staunchly maintain boundaries between this intimate labor and that done by cam-girls, porn performers, or other sex workers. ASMRtists often aim to maintain their distance from other erotic laborers to ensure the respectability and “legitimacy” of their practices. 

The prevalence and popularity of white, bourgeois bodies also disguises the reality that caring labor (domestic work, child and elder care in the U.S.) is most frequently extracted from the Global South. Her view count grows, while migrant and lower class women of color do much of the work in the global economy of emotions: labor that capital ensures is exploited and made invisible. 

***

Under neoliberal capitalism, reliable structures of public life and social relating have broken down in favor of privatized, market-based alternatives. It is challenging, for me at least, to find forms of nurturance besides those precariously secured in romantic or sexual intimacies. I occupy and shift between the subjectivity of the cute, caring agent like the Sugarbunny or the ASMRtist, with her life-giving flourishes, and the worker-consumer she attends to. At times I embody both at once; I consume beautiful sedatives as I am trained to become one. 

I smear on some pink lipstick and black winged eyeliner. I open a new tab, observing my digital cam-girl profile. I am immediately wedged into a distinct subjectivity, a new performative role: the doll dominatrix. Over the past year, I have developed this online dominatrix persona. I feature very demure, cute, “innocently” sensuous photos of myself, often holding my kitten. While the combination of cuteness and domination may appear paradoxical, I decided to play on cuteness’ (pejorative) associations with duplicity and feminine entrapment. The client is drawn to and disarmed by the cute object, and giving in to the cute object’s appeal for affection is an indicator of their leaky weakness and penetrability, a threat to their self-sovereignty. The expectation may be that the cute being will submit to you, allow you to mold and shape her in your image, consume her. 

I add some tags to elicit interest in clients:

#cutie #sweet #angel #sensitive #compassionate #caring

While my performance is still largely shaped by the gaze of the consumer, I play a very willful cute object, questioning and prodding my submissives to interrogate their own desires, their own subjectivity, their own power. Femdom, or “female domination,” is more like psychological play, a liminal ritual of reversal in which the traditionally subjugated party adopts a domination ethos.

#goddess #hypnosis #merciless #financialdomination

Some of my clients are middle-managers, tech bros, and PhD students. A few of them are rather dominant in their work sphere and may, to some extent, be seeking a surrender of that self-sovereignty and dominating subjectivity by taking orders from a dominatrix. In this ritual of reversal, the submissive man may not “lose” agency, but rather is turned on by the idea of temporarily undergoing a disciplined self-fashioning in a submissive role. 

#wisdom #advice #authentic #GFE

Some clients live in cities with flexible, tech-oriented work cultures. They can be socially atomized, with no time to date. They don’t want the engagement involved in relationship, but still want the “girlfriend experience.” They want psychological, emotional, and sexual needs met without any expectation on them in a mutual relationship. It is easier to consume a cute, lovely, “authentic” commodity to efficiently meet those needs in an optimized way, than to endure the grind of living-with. Digital interfaces like this one can provide a platform for nonnormative relational modes and new types of connectivity. But, of course, they largely cater to male entitlement, as sexual and emotional experiences are offerings in a buffet under late capitalism. 

#princess #feet #420 #humiliation 

Not only high income or high-power men are interested in submission. I’ve worked with men of different races and classes who are also interested in “sissification,” “feminization,” and humiliation. I try not to pop-psychologize them too much, but I have considered that certain humiliating sexual practices can be attractive to some men who carry shame or want to turn painful experiences of masculine non-belonging into pleasurable ones. I also can’t help but think that to them, to be a feminized subject is deeply humiliating and taboo. But these practices aren’t just rooted in shame, personal pathology, and patriarchy. The sexual imagination is polymorphously perverse, fluid, yet shaped by institutions, individualized, and biomedicalized. It can attach to all kinds of things; for example, a client who has a fetish for women wearing their seatbelts. 

A necessary thing to mention about being a dominatrix online is that, from my positionality, I can expose as little of my body as I want to maintain my personal security on the internet. I occupy an exceptionally non-precarious space on the spectrum of sexual-caring-intimate labor. Moral hierarchies and stigmas abound within and outside communities of sex workers based on their class and racial positions, their levels of exposure, the cultural and educational capital they hold, and whether they work indoors or outdoors—factors that affect who faces heightened criminalization and violence. A lot of my boundaries are rooted in my economic and social class, whiteness, conventional beauty, and availability of other income options. Creating a commodity based to a large extent in educational, emotional, and cultural capital is not superior or more of a body of skilled knowledge than more explicitly “sexual” uses of body capital. I can have conversations and transactions safely on my terms, although I am still operating under a neoliberal individual-entrepreneurial model within an interface that takes nearly 40 percent of my earnings, then gives me the opportunity to earn single percentages back, over time, the more I make. 

Embodying the cute dominatrix is a form of deep acting, of switching into a quasi-performative space. It’s sometimes difficult to switch on the goddess-act of the doll dominatrix because she is a hyper-realized version of myself: no insecurity, unable to be manipulated, fierce boundaries, unshakeable sense of self, but still “authentic” and vulnerable in a bounded way. Authenticity as commodity has its own set of scripts: Yes, I am ‘me,’ quite risky and spontaneous, I can be intimately vulnerable, this is all from the pure wellspring within, yes, is it not? Do you feel connection, release? I am an angel of the home computer, of the digital marketplace. I rejuvenate the worker, conjuring and selling just enough semblances of life back to him to get him to return to work. 

Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.

José Esteban Muñoz

Cuteness can be an embodied strategy to ensure one’s own care, with its penetrating, disarming appeals for nurturance. Yasmin’s affectionate appeals for care, her purrs, her tricks, and her cuddles, are “cute” bodily technologies. I have also lived into and subconsciously attuned myself to “cute” bodily choreographies in my own relationships, transactional or not. In this sense cuteness is done to subjects, but they can also “do” cuteness. While it often seems like an external imposition or false consciousness, cute subjects are also creators of “cute” discourse. An attraction and desire for the cute recruits us into its regime, where we challenge, reappropriate, and reformulate imposed categories. 

Cuteness can shape interspecies relations, as we impose ideas of cuteness onto other animals and deepen power imbalances. Donna Haraway writes that companion species are “not here just to think with. Neither are they just an alibi for other themes; dogs [cats, guinea pigs] are fleshly material-semiotic presences in the body of technoscience. They are here to live with.” Yasmin often defies the over-determinations of her breed, refusing docility and containment. She has taught me a lot about boundaries, reading cat body language and signals, and interspecies communication. We practice the slow blink, through which we express our trust in one another. I learned how to approach, with an outstretched hand and limited direct eye contact. Cats rarely preemptively attack, we just haven’t been listening to them and the language of their bodies. 

Cuteness can be produced within consumer objects and technologies to ameliorate social deficits. I am not a technophobe for thinking that embodied intimacy with self-compassionate, protective boundaries makes life livable. Capital will keep us at the edge of the bearable, to make our lives work, to give us just enough love, or simulations of it, to let us go on reproducing this life-world. As valuable as digital connectivity and object intimacies can be for those of us decentered in the public sphere, they cannot be a replacement for collectively transforming social relations. Embodied relationships will have to be the interstices in which we can imagine and live into possibilities of, in Lauren Berlant’s words, a “radically resensualized post-neoliberal subject.”

Cuteness can be used as a discourse to subordinate docile dependents, then scapegoat populations in the name of their protection. Some sensitivities and fragilities disguise violence, when my avoidance of pain or discomfort is predicated on the disproportionate burden of pain on others. Consider the white fragile woman, made more and more fragile—embodying, to use bell hooks’s term, a “patriarchal femininity”—in order to become the beloved object that justifies racial violence against Others. This form of masculinist protectionism is based in white supremacist national security, sexual pathologization and criminalization of Black, Arab, and other people of color as threats to cute, docile white women-and-children, as their “inherently dangerous” counterparts.

Some of the most apolitically framed identities are often not so innocuous; they disguise violence, and are mobilized and constructed for oppressive ends. The feminized caretaker, the “cute” dependent, and the racialized Others whose labor and resources are exploited and whose bodies and life-ways are “cleansed” from the social body in the former’s name, are all subordinated positions to the self-sovereign, autonomous, masculine, white subject. Their oppressions are interlocking, opening an opportunity for solidarity-building, mutual presence, and interdependent bonds across axes of oppression, in which we are also accountable and co-responsible for the ways we reproduce and enable each other’s oppressions. Our conceptualizations of solidarity, care, and love must not elide the workings of power within such relationships.

NOTE: My own healing, thought processes, and analysis are so indebted to world- and heart-opening, transformational work by Sara Ahmed (on the affective politics of fear, the concept of willful subjects, and so much other wisdom), bell hooks (on patriarchal femininities), Saba Mahmood (on docile agents), Donna Haraway (on companion species), Rob Horning (on the acquisitive gaze), Lauren Berlant (on cruel optimism), Elizabeth Bernstein (term and thinking around ‘bounded authenticity’ in sex work), Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (on intimate labors), Patricia Hill Collins (on interlocking oppression), Iris Marion Young (on masculinist protection), Kathi Weeks (on ideologies of work), Silvia Federici (on domestic labor and capitalist social reproduction), Jean Baudrillard (on consumer society), for inspiration and the term ‘cruel relief,’ the book: The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness by Joshua Dale, et al., the article, “Love’s Labours Lost? Feminism, the Disabled People’s Movement and an Ethic of Care” by Bill Hughes, et al., and many more influences, including support + understanding from my professors (especially Crystal Biruk, Meiver De la Cruz, Emilia Bachrach, Rian Brown-Orso), friends, and multispecies kin.

Categories
Field Notes

Like An Echo, Like A Lie

by Olivia Pandolfi | Field Notes | Spring 2018

Image by Francesca Ott

The reverberations of Robert Johnson.


Prelude

On December 13th, 1938, Carnegie Hall was filled with a listening silence. At a program of appreciation for Black music in America called From Spirituals to Swing, thousands of audience members heard first static, then an insistent voice, issue from the cone of an amplified phonograph. The audience probably listened hard—they were hearing the voice of a dead man. 

John Hammond, the Columbia Records talent scout who organized the concert, had sent word down to Mississippi to invite Robert Johnson, the voice’s owner, to play his blues music on the program, only to hear back that he had died mere weeks before. Hammond was told that the singer’s whiskey had been poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his mistresses. But having heard one of his records, Hammond included Johnson’s music in the concert anyway, maybe because he still needed a representative of backwoods blues music and didn’t have time enough to find a replacement, or maybe because he didn’t want anyone but Johnson. 

It was in all likelihood the first time someone played a record in Carnegie Hall to a packed house. The song was “Preachin’ Blues.” In it Johnson sang, as he often did, about traveling and dying and playing music, over a shuffling guitar riff. 

Woke up this mornin’, blues walkin 
like a man
Woke up this mornin’, blues walkin 
like a man
Worried blues, give me your right hand

I say he sang, and I mean that the needle traced the grooves in the record, and that the vibrations carried through the phonograph and over the PA system, and all of these small motions delivered the living breathing voice—like a lie, like an echo—into the ears of the concertgoers. 

The blues is a low-down shakin’chill
Is a low-down shakin’ chill
You ain’t never had em, I hope you 
never will

The crowd heard plenty of live music that night, but they heard the absent Johnson too, heard him alive and twice-reflected, his clear voice carrying out above the seats, filling up all the space they could see. 

***

The First Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on Peter Guralnick’s account in his book Searching for Robert Johnson

Born May 8th, 1911, Robert Leroy Dodds Spencer passed his early years in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and then Memphis, Tennessee, under the care of his mother Julia Major Dodds and stepfather Charles Dodds. Robert’s biological father was Noah Johnson, a plantation worker whom he never met. At age seven or eight, Robert returned to the Delta, near Robinsonville, MS, where his mother and her new husband, Dusty Willis, raised him into adolescence. Going by either Robert Johnson or Little Robert Dusty then, he may or may not have gone to school in Commerce, outside Robinsonville. He had beautiful handwriting but was “anti-education.” His wife died in childbirth at age 16. Robert Johnson’s musical mentor, Son House, recalls “little boy” Johnson (at age 19 or so) being distinctly unskilled at playing guitar. “A racket,” House called his playing, but when Johnson returned two years later, remarried and fresh from rambling travels around the Mississippi River Delta, his sudden proficiency—even mastery—made House’s jaw drop. 

This part of the story has grown to the status of legend. Even if you don’t recognize the name Robert Johnson, you have undoubtedly heard a story about a person selling their soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent. Like most myths, this one has an untraceable genesis, but most attribute it to Robert Johnson because of the frequent appearance of the devil figure in his songs, and because of his unexplained and apparently drastic improvement as a musician. Johnson’s story has been made into movies, books, songs, even a federal postage stamp collection, and his music itself was one of the single greatest influences on the development of rock ‘n roll. As influential as his music has been—and it is influential, with artists like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones covering his songs and citing him as an inspiration—the devil myth has transcended him to become an idiom unto itself. He haunts our imaginations because he died so young, but the devil story is the one that snags in our souls. 

Describing the mythic origin story of another famous bluesman named Tommy Johnson (no relation to Robert), his brother LeDell Johnson said, 

… the reason he knowed so much, said he sold hisself to the devil. I asked him how. He said, “If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12:00 [AM] that night … You have your guitar and be playing a piece sittin there by yourself… A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.

Son House was convinced that the same thing had happened with Robert Johnson: It was the only explanation for his sudden abilities. Growing a reputation, Johnson traveled all around, riding by train, or being pulled behind a tractor in a corn wagon. At his stops he established connections, a woman in every town to take care of him. Shy but direct, he would ask for their company, and for the most part they accepted his advances. The relationships would end either when the woman’s husband or boyfriend came back or Johnson left town. In spite of these relationships, he remained something of a loner—guarded, cryptic. He could play anything, picking a tune up after listening to it once on the radio. 

***

On the devil, lightheartedness, and sin

Several of Johnson’s songs casually mention walking with the devil, talking to the devil, living with the devil closeby no matter where he goes: “Me and the Devil Blues” starts with the two of them walking side by side and ends with Johnson asking to bury my body down by the highway side / so my old evil spirit / can get a greyhound bus and ride. How seriously can we take his references to the devil? Hearing the music now, it’s easy to take him very seriously, imagining that he is speaking grave truths about his sins, about the cosmic consequences of his lifestyle. But the figure of the devil, with its multivalent and prolific representations, can be hellish or corny, divine, tragic, or—funny. Humorous or fiendish interpretations of the devil—the trickster figure, the rebel son—are nearly as common as the more classical imagery of an evil soul-keeper in the underworld.

Images by Naomi Langer

What music historian Tom Graves calls “devil talk” in Robert Johnson’s time and place was familiar to his audiences, a dialogue that invoked the devil not to inspire fear or awe but to tap into heavily saturated religious imagery for humor’s sake. Of his listeners, Graves writes, “They probably didn’t give a second thought to Johnson’s depictive musings on the subject, certainly not enough to seriously believe he was actually in league with the devil.” Like telling an inside joke, Johnson mentions the devil because it is already a part of how people made sense of the sorrows in their lives—to take it too seriously is to fall into the all-too-common tendency to romanticize and rhapsodize on the theme of Johnson past the point of meaning. 

This “devil talk” likely came from the relationship between Puritan Christianity and West African religious traditions, which commingled in Black religious practice in the South as a result of slavery. The syncretism between these two traditions also blurred distinctions between the Christian devil and the West African deity Legba, a spirit or guardian of the crossroads who is recognized by various names in different parts of Africa and the diaspora (Eshu in Benin, Elegua in Cuba, Papa Legba in Haiti). Because both figures are associated with souls and the gateway between the human world and the divine, many historians think that the folklore image of the devil at the crossroads comes directly from Legba’s mythology. Legba is also the deity of trickery, music, and language, known to take delight in chaos and act unpredictably, though he has nothing to do with sin or punishment. More than one devil appears in blues folklore then—the punisher of sins from Southern Christianity and the trickster guardian of the crossroads from West African religions—and Johnson’s devil is either, neither, or both.

So yes, maybe Johnson uses the devil as a joke, or a specific intimacy with his audience and the complex religious confluences they shared. Or maybe he talks about the devil so much because he knows how real it is, more even than the preachers do. Greil Marcus writes in his rock ‘n roll history classic, Mystery Train, that “the blues singers, in a twisted way, were the real Puritans. These men, who had to renounce the blues to be sanctified, who often sneered at the preachers in their songs, were the ones who really believed in the devil; they feared the devil most because they knew him best.” To live the life of a blues singer, especially a traveling one like Johnson, meant to drink, to womanize, to be uprooted, and most of all, to do so on the dime of the devil’s music: a life path through the very Puritan American South that might have produced all kinds of guilt. But the self-awareness of blues singers as sinners and their resulting fixation on the devil feels like a matter-of-fact confession, a wrestling with quotidian devilishness that is neither tragic nor romantic. It’s small, feels ordinary, to open the door to Satan’s knock and tell him, like Johnson does in “Me and the Devil Blues,” that you believe, it’s time to go.

Mechanics of Recording I

At the turn of the 20th century, acoustic recording was the best way anyone knew to capture sound and translate it into a physical form. To record a sound, an acoustic gramophone’s diamond-tipped stylus would move with the vibrations and carve grooves into the wax coating of a record. The grooves would either be vertical, “hill-and-dale,” or lateral, side-to-side—physical mirrors of the sound itself. When the record was played back, a needle would manually, acoustically retrace the paths that had been engraved in the record’s surface, and send the resulting vibrations to the diaphragm, where they echoed out through a cone-shaped amplifier. The sounds that came from a gramophone were therefore reproductions of the original sound waves, a sort of twice-removed reflection. A conduit for the presence of the artist. 

***

The Second Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on Tom Graves’s account in his book Crossroads

Born May 8th, 1911 in Hazlehurst, MS, Robert Leroy Johnson also went by the name Robert Spencer. He was “an outside child,” something of a misfit, partly but not only because he was born out of wedlock and never knew his biological father. He was his mother’s 11th child, and learned to play music from an older brother named Charles Leroy, who later became a pianist. His first instruments were the diddley bow—a one-string folk instrument made of a length of broom wire stretched between two nails—and the Jew’s harp, an ancient sort of precursor to the harmonica. He then learned the harmonica, a sound which, together with the diddley bow, would come to shape his unique style on guitar. 

Music was Robert’s escape from his difficult home life and the oppressive atmosphere of the cotton plantations in Mississippi. As a young man, he lived with his stepfather Dusty Willis in Robinsonville, Mississippi, who tried and failed to teach him a work ethic by making him pick cotton. Robert went briefly to school at the Indian Creek School in Tunica, but a lazy eye probably prevented him from continuing for long. Unhappy and in search of a different life, he ran away from home. He was known to go to juke joints on Saturday nights and drink corn whiskey while listening to the bluesmen play. This musician’s life attracted him and pulled him away from home, and he spent some time traveling and playing in the Delta. But at 18, he fell in love and got married to a local girl, Virginia Travis, who soon afterward died during childbirth in April of 1930. This moment was a crossroads for Robert; a black curtain fell across his life, not only because of his grief in losing his wife and child, but also due to her family’s accusations that he had neglected her at her hour of greatest need. From that point on, Robert would never again stay in one place, but wandered between towns and women, accompanied only by his music and his drinking habit. 

Mechanics of Recording II

After 1925, electrical recording replaced acoustic recording, a development that meant sounds could be reproduced in higher quality more easily. In acoustic recording, the sound waves’ ability to carve wax with precision and to reflect the actual range of frequencies in a sound was limited—what was recorded ended up being the softly defined middle of the sound, without the overtones and undertones you can hear in a real voice. Electrical recording adapted some of the technology used in telephones to turn sound waves into electrical signals that were more accurate, giving clarity to the lowest and highest frequencies. Recordings now retained the sound of the room where they were made, microphones being more sensitive to subtle reverberations and echoes than the horns of the acoustic recording days. Once recording was electrified, the clear range of audible expression expanded, but the playback system worked much the same as it had before—a needle retracing the grooves, following, echoing. As overlapping harmonics bring the voice into focus, slowly the absences diminish, the gaps fill in. 

***

The Third Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on Elijah Wald’s book Escaping the Delta

Born May 8th, 1911, Robert Johnson lived first with his mother, and then a man named Charles Dodds, who was also known as Charles Spencer. Johnson was introduced to music during his childhood, and it eventually drew him away from home; he became a regular juke joint performer either in Arkansas or south of the Delta, and while he was away married a woman named Callie Craft. He had one “bad” eye and a lot of confidence, and would always look sharp regardless of how many days he had spent riding in railcars wearing the same suit. He went traveling with Johnny Shines, another blues player, from Memphis to New York to Indiana to Kentucky in the early ’30s. Shines once witnessed him bring a whole room of adults to tears with the slide guitar on his song “Come On in My Kitchen.” 

You better come on in my kitchen
It’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors
Ah the woman I love, took from my best
friend
Some joker got lucky, stole her back again
You better come on in my kitchen
It’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors

Johnson recorded 16 songs in San Antonio, TX, for the American Record Corporation (ARC) in November of 1936, and another 13 in Dallas in June of 1937. Then he spent some time in Arkansas, and might have put together a band with a drummer and a pianist, playing what was later called “jump blues.” By 1938 he was back in the Delta, specifically in Greenwood, MS. He played frequently at a club just outside ofGreenwood, and the owner eventually suspected Johnson of getting involved with his wife. He decided to poison Johnson’s whiskey to get rid of him. Johnson died on August 16th, 1938 at about age 27, either from this poisoning, syphilis, or pneumonia, depending on the account you believe. Some people who claim to have witnessed it remember Johnson losing his wits in his final hours and howling like a dog. 

The death certificate, which says that Johnson played banjo instead of guitar and misspells his father’s name, also cites a Greenwood plantation owner’s opinion that Johnson died of syphilis, noting by way of explanation that he was a musician. These inaccuracies in the official record are a final violence to Johnson, on top of the already numerous violences inherent in life for Black people in the early 20th-century Delta. It’s reasonable even to question if this death certificate belongs to the right Johnson, or to another banjo-playing one we know nothing else about. 

***

The devil is a stand-in

There are some blues songs, usually ballads, that have many different versions—the same characters act differently depending on if you hear the version sung by a chain gang in Georgia or an old bluesman in Tennessee. Singers add and take away stanzas and rhymes, start and end the action at different points, collectively weaving together the deeds of an outlaw like Staggerlee or the story of the mean sheriff and Poor Lazarus, figures who billow into myth. The origin stories of Robert Johnson work much in the same way, with overlapping and conflicting details that congregate and disperse, making way for empty spaces and simultaneous truths. 

So it is not so much the image of Robert Johnson shaking hands with the devil over his newly tuned guitar that seems to have taken hold in our national imaginary, but the lack of an image, the blankness that stands in its place. The devil story is one we like to tell because it is literally unimaginable. Our inability to visualize the physical materiality of that scene is what allows us to take the Robert Johnson story—the two known photographs of him, his recordings, and the wildly various and conflicting impressions he left on those who met him—and run. 

We run in so many directions with that idea—of selling your soul to the devil for musical talent—that we have left Robert Johnson standing at the mythical crossroads, howling out his blues to the wilderness, in either the clearest and most proximate act of selfhood possible, or the loneliest and least traceable. 

***

Mechanics of Recording III

The move from acoustic to electrical recording in the ’20s expanded the range of sound frequencies that could be produced in high quality—expanded the record’s ability to tell the truth. It also eliminated the need for artists to play directly into the recording horn in order for their sound to be registered by the stylus. Before, the choreography of recording many musicians at once was a complex affair, requiring louder instruments to be placed further away from the horn and quieter ones closer, so that the balance was right in the recording. During solos, an instrumentalist would run up to the horn in order to deliver their phrase before retreating back into the group. The push and pull of sound around the horn was physical, dynamic. 

With electrical recording, though, the musician sat somewhere in a room and the recording equipment around them could be adjusted to create what a lead researcher with Bell Labs called “the illusion of the presence of the artist.” The recordist could manipulate the electrical signals’ volume, dimension, and clarity to bend the sound waves into the voice, the guitar, the harmonica, that manifest on the record itself. The power of the recordist, dispersed throughout his electrical equipment, could be felt like a puppeteer tugging strings: pulling a riff a little closer to the audience, letting out the slack on a voice, leaning into the overtones or the undertones, shaping, turning, distorting. 

***

The Fourth Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on the account given in the Radiolab episode “Crossroads”

The origin of the Robert Johnson myth is more important than the origin of the man himself, although they are tied up together. After a time traveling around the Mississippi Delta, in 1929, Robert was married in at age 19 to a woman named Virginia. They settled down to a happy domestic life on their farm. She became pregnant soon afterward, and when the time came for the baby to be born, she went to stay with her family. Robert was to follow after her, but he went out of town to play a gig just before she went into labor, only discovering when he returned that she had died during childbirth. Virginia’s family ostracized him for this, blaming him for killing her by playing the devil’s songs. The grief of this experience is what turned Robert from a mediocre musician into an exceptional one—grief and guilt are what tore him from his life and then pushed him, haunted, back into it. That grief is what people refer to when they tell the devil story—the devil is just another name for death. 

***

Record-keeping and white authority

The government record of Robert Johnson’s death, his official death certificate, is skewed because it relies on the opinion of a white plantation owner rather than taking the accounts of Black musicians who actually witnessed his death. The certificate is probably the most blatant instance of white authority distorting what we can know about him, but it is just one of many examples. The afterlife of his music commits another contortion, proliferating a legacy based in mythology.

Both the myth of Robert Johnson and his music were revived in the later 20th century, supposedly due to the interest of white rock and roll musicians, who were already making their fame on the theft and reappropriation of Black art forms (the blues being prominent among them). It was artists like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones covering Johnson’s songs that brought him into the national consciousness; their romanticization of his tortured-artist soul and young death was another kind of reaping. It is worth noting that they deeply admired Johnson and meant to pay tribute to him, not only exploit his talents and mythic pull. But it is equally worth mentioning that they were ultimately the ones getting paid.

With the white band covers, the white government records, and moreover the many white ethnomusicologists who have populated the blank spaces of Robert Johnson with speculation, some solid research, and rhapsody on the theme of his sold soul—our attempts to see and hear the truth of Johnson are tied up in the violences of white authority. It only feels possible to see beyond this, to stand facing Johnson, by listening to his records. Through the vibrations, the receivers, the diaphragms, the styluses writing grooves into wax, we can summon his voice and guitar out of a speaker, hear him sing: 

I got to keep movin’, I got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’
down like hail
Hmmm-mmm, blues fallin’ down like
hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the days keeps on worryin’ me 
There’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail

***

Postlude 

The 26 songs that we have from Robert Johnson are the products of two recording sessions: one in San Antonio, TX, in November of 1936 and one in Dallas, TX, in July of 1937. In San Antonio, he was one of several acts scouted out by ARC, including a cowboy swing band and two groups of Mexican musicians.

Here are three accounts of what happened in that room. All are equally true. 

Johnson had never played in a studio before. The other musicians’ eyes followed his every move. Suffering a bad case of stage fright, he turned away from the microphone toward the corner of the room. He drew a breath and closed his eyes, and began to play, letting his high clear voice rise straight from his chest.

Johnson sat facing the corner, turned away from the other musicians, to hide his patented picking patterns and slide hand. Dressed slick and sharp in a suit like he always was, he gave one glance over his left shoulder at the recording technician, just long enough to see him nod. He played the first chord, coaxing the whine out of it. His gaze rested on his left hand and followed the chords as they changed. 

Robert Johnson mostly played in living rooms and crowded juke joints, and he never had an amplifier. He had learned to make the room do the amplifying for him. When he sat down in the studio, he faced the corner so that the sounds of his guitar and his voice would dissipate into the room. Even though his back was to the receiver, his voice sounded like it came from the walls themselves. He screwed up his face in concentration, sliding his hand and his voice together up the octave and back down, holding a wavering note before letting it fall, stomping the floor on two and four. 

Categories
Field Notes

Why You Shouldn’t Teach for America

by Brian Cabral | Field Notes | Spring 2018

Images by Francesca Ott

In October of 2017, I had a phone conversation with a recruiter from Teach for America (TFA) and nearly landed a full-time job. After I answered her questions about my upbringing and current life interests, she assured me that my application would be accepted if I submitted one. “You’d be a great addition for us,” she said. I considered this. I thought about how great it would be to land this job and to know what I would be doing for at least a year after graduation. But then I remembered that it was TFA and decided not to pursue it at all.

My reluctance to work with TFA has been shared by other people before me, but there are also many who believe in the mission and service of the organization. What TFA members are offered for their one- to two-year service at first glance is unclear, but the gist I got from my conversation with the recruiter was that TFA provides a livable, full-time teacher salary dependent on which region you teach in, health insurance, and the opportunity to spearhead a classroom without having a teaching license or any prior teaching experience. The recruiter also promised a strong network of TFA alumni and connections to graduate or professional programs as bait to try and recruit me. This is a good opportunity, especially for young professionals who have just graduated from college. But this tempting offer fails to consider the impact that such an organizational model has on the students at the low-income, underfunded schools that TFA partners with. I think that most newly recruited teachers who just graduated college are more invested in the benefits offered by the organization than the national concern of teacher shortages in urban public schools across the country.

As someone who values education, I am conflicted in my opinion on TFA. On one hand, yes, it provides graduating seniors like me job security for one- to two-years where we are able to gain experience and use TFA as a stepping stone to progress into our careers. On the other hand, no, it does not benefit the low-income, racially segregated student demographics in the schools that TFA works with. I situate myself as both a potential participant of TFA and a former student at one of those schools.

I attended Social Justice High School (SOJO), a small public high school in Chicago, between 2010 and 2014. The school is primarily comprised of Latino/Hispanic and Black/African American students. During my junior year, I overheard my principal in conversation with the school counselor about partnering with Teach for America. She had said, if I remember correctly, “They out they damn minds.” She justified her reluctance to partner with TFA with the fact that in other public schools, the majority of the TFA teachers are white college graduates. This is concerning, because despite obtaining a college degree, many of the TFA teachers are not knowledgeable about the school culture or culturally aware of how to teach the racially and economically diverse student population found in the schools they end up in. Had TFA promised to bring teachers of color to SOJO, I still think my principal would have said no. She firmly stated that the lack of teaching or pedagogical training hindered rather than helped the learning and development of high school students. A combination of these interactions and my relationships with teachers in high school inform the perspective that I have towards TFA. My biggest suspicion of TFA is the distinction between what the organization is, and what it does, compared to what it claims to do. 

Teach for America prides itself on being a nonprofit organization that provides a useful service for communities in need. One of TFA’s values is service: It directly addresses the teacher shortages found in many public and charter schools across the country. It asks college graduates, who are presumed to be well-equipped to become teachers, to join in order to gain experience and skills necessary for other jobs. At the same time, their participation in TFA will have a positive impact on students in the schools. Because of this, many college seniors see TFA as a viable option after graduating because they earn a full-time salary, gain experience, and are able to pat themselves on the back for serving communities that need teaching positions filled. Why, then, are people so critical of TFA? Why did I push away the idea of working for them?

TFA only offers temporary employment. To my knowledge, based on interactions with the recruiter and peers who have done TFA, I understand that the most time you can spend with the organization is two years. If you opt in for a second year, you will most likely be placed at a different school than the one you were placed in for your first year. This means that the service you are providing for schools in need of teachers is short-term and fails to address long-term needs. TFA teachers gain meaningful experience and learn how to manage a classroom along the way, but this short-term stint benefits the teacher more than it does the student body. Shouldn’t the learning process and achievement of the students be what’s most important?

I have peers who made the decision to work for TFA, who refused to join or who are currently weighing the benefits and drawbacks of joining the organization. I spoke with some of them in order to gain insight on this matter; my intention was to figure out whether or not they share my concerns about TFA. One of them, who graduated from Brown University, opted into a second year with the organization in the Los Angeles region, and was placed in a different school than he had worked during his first year. As a product of public schools, he initially joined to give back to the school system that had helped him get into college. He shared that despite not being placed in the school that he wanted, he was servicing schools that needed teachers, and that was enough for him. When I asked him why he decided to opt for another year with TFA, his response was simple: job security. However, he does not intend to stay in the field of education after his second year with TFA; instead, he said he’d rather work at a think tank. Another peer who decided to join TFA in the summer of 2018 shared a similar sentiment about the ways that TFA uses “service” to lure college graduates into becoming teachers. But she’s also a firm believer that TFA is a good option for those who intend to remain in the field like she does. “It’s good experience to become better teachers,” she said. Another peer of mine who graduated from Oberlin in 2016 mentioned that he joined TFA not for its mission, but because it allowed him to teach without having to go to school for teaching; it will be at most two years of his life and then he gets to move on. Once again, mandating a short-term commitment benefits the teachers and not the students in the schools.

As part of my independent research, I interviewed young men of color who had attended SOJO at one point in their high school trajectory. In those interviews, I asked them about their interactions with teachers, and many of them talked about teachers who have worked at the school for at least four years. Most of them were able to name at least one teacher from SOJO that taught or mentored them throughout their time in high school. One of the young men praised teachers at SOJO who have been there for a long time: “I wouldn’t have been done with high school without them… they annoyed me, yeah, but they cared for me,” he said. Remember that SOJO did not partner with TFA, instead, all teachers were full-time employees under the Chicago Public School system. Many had prior experience with teaching or student teaching, and because of those experiences, these teachers were able to connect with SOJO students and witness their growth as they progressed through school. For short-term teachers, this experience and interaction with students is not possible.

Teach for America has been successful at recruiting short-term teachers for many public and charter schools across the country. I mean, they almost had me too. The organization will continue to exist and expand, but the reason why I decided not to take an offer from the TFA recruiter came after considering the adverse effects on the students. A friend of mine told me that TFA is transparent about their short-term model, which is a selling point for college graduates because many want to go on to do other things. Why not provide them with an opportunity to get experience, serve as teachers and role models, and then move on with their lives? I get this. But who is this truly benefiting? Certainly not the students. Sure, TFA teachers have positive interactions with the students, but are their students’ academic needs being met? How do you leverage the inexperience of TFA teachers with the fact that many of their students are low-income and/or students of color? Previous research by Pedro Noguera and others has shown that schools of this demographic struggle the most academically—having short-term teacher guidance will not help this matter. 

While TFA has made improvements over time, it is still unable to improve the educational inequality brought about by teacher shortages in public schools. Short-term teacher appointments and trainings do not prepare teachers for the classroom, and it is a faulty way of framing ‘service’ for college graduates. TFA must rethink its organizational model to consider privileging the impact on the students of the communities they are trying to serve, instead of the convenience it provides the teachers. Maybe then I would have considered Teach for America after college.